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James Brooke Reminisces About Columbia Heights AreaFor about 18 of my first 24 years on the planet, I lived within a block or two of the intersection of Ontario Road and Columbia Road. I don't think that was what is now called Adams-Morgan, and it wasn't quite Mt. Pleasant, so maybe it was in Columbia Heights by default. I guess we were orphans of the name game. Here are some recollections of that neighborhood and time (not in any particular order) which you may find interesting.
I was born in 1940; arithmetic will tell you how old I was then and am now. I've been in the Chicago area for over 25 years, so these recollections are sort of frozen in time from the early 70's.
My father hit his 40th birthday in the middle of World War II, so was too old for the military. He was an auxiliary fireman though at the firehouse on Lanier Place. That was simply one thing that men who were too old for other service could contribute. That was Engine 21 and Truck 9, I think. I saw that Firehouse recently in a book of "classic" fire houses. Who woulda thought?
Al Jolson's parents used to live a few doors west of the firehouse on Lanier Place.
We had our neighborhood tramp, or rag man. We called him "Old Joe Cabbage," for reasons totally unknown. He used to emerge from and disappear into one of the garages in the alley behind the fire house.
There was a Miss Washington in the neighborhood sometime in the 40's. She used to sell tickets and/or popcorn at the Ambassador Theater at 18th and Columbia. Her last name was DelRe, and she lived in the house at the corner of 18th and Ontario. My parents used to ask her to baby sit me from time to time. I don't remember her first name, but her younger sister was Rita DelRe, who was my vintage.
The Boys' Club was run by the 10th Precinct of the Metropolitan Police in the basement of the Unitarian Church. The entrance was on 15th Street, by Columbia Road. I recently saw a documentary on Pat Buchanan, whom I knew from elsewhere in the city, and recognized one of the faces in that documentary from old Boys Club days. He was Victor Rosenberg, now described as an attorney. I never would have connected Buchanan and Rosenberg outside of that documentary.
I was in the Cub Scouts, Pack #301 at Sacred Heart Church, 16th and Park Road. Joe Boyle's dad was DenMaster (I guess that's the right word.). The Boyle's lived on Lamont Street, next to the street car turnaround on Mount Pleasant, just south of Park Road. I recall Eddie Savory's mom, our Den Mother, was a dear lady. I had my first cigarette at age 10 after one of those meetings. Maybe Charlie Deacon gave it to me. I just quit in 1991, so that exercise in juvenile stupidity lasted over 40 years.
The Zoo entrance was moved some years ago a few hundred feet from where it was at the very bottom of Harvard Street. That is interesting because of the tremendous sledding we could do. With feeder streets blocked, we could sled from the park at 16th/Mt. Pleasant/Columbia all the way down to the bottom of Harvard street, and across a bridge over Rock Creek. I wouldn't think urban kids anywhere get that kind of hill today.
I remember Saturday afternoon movies and serials at the Tivoli. Admission was 11 cents or 17 cents or something like that. The Savoy was nice, but never as popular as the Tivoli.
We used to buy pastry at Heller's Bakery, on Mount Pleasant, between Park Road and Lamont Street, and the smell that hit you as you walked in was just fantastic. All the bakery smells today are great, but nothing will ever be the same as that one.
My mother used to take me to the Public Library at 16th and Lamont where a nice lady would read stories to youngsters on Saturday mornings. That was entertainment before TV's, PC's, CD's, et al.
I remember apartment houses getting torn down to make room for the two supermarkets on Columbia Rd., between Ontario and 18th. Never figured out why two were built next door to each other, but they sure were grand at the time.
There was a time when the Ontario Theatre was the newest in the city, and on the first-run circuit.
I remember when Central High School closed. I was too young to have gone, but others in the area were very emotional about it.
There was a roller skating rink on Kalorama, just off 16th, called National Arena, I think. Nice, innocent way to spend weekend afternoons. There was a bowling alley underneath. I used to set pins there for pocket change and for pickup games. No one in the Midwest knows anything about duck pins. I hope they're still around there.
My grandmother used to live in an apartment building at 1673 Columbia Road, at the corner of Quarry Road. One of her neighbors was General McAuliffe's mother. He was the general who became famous for answering "Nuts" to a German surrender demand during a bleak part of the Battle of the Bulge.
My other grandmother used to live on Irving Street. It sounds much more racist now than it was ever intended at the time, but one of the things said about Irving Street was, "Crosstown bus go down this way? Do-dah. Do-dah." Maybe that was from some old Capital Transit commercial or ad.
A man named Mo Starr ran a news stand with tons of comic books at 18th and Columbia, between People's Drug Store and a barber shop. I used to spend too much time there reading his comic books for free, and he kept kicking me out, and I kept going back. I think I learned to read as much there as any school I ever went to.
There was a restaurant on Columbia Road, farther up and across from Mo's news stand, called Avignon Freres. It was maybe the classiest place in the neighborhood, and the Chinese restaurant next door was called The Sun or Sun's or something close to that.
A place farther west on Columbia tried to outdo Avignon's. It was called Garden T Shoppe. "T" was a cutesy way of saying "Tea." My more pretentious aunts, grandmothers, cousins and other blue-haired ladies went there. I remember being uncomfortable every time I went there.
A place at the other end of the dining spectrum was called Blue Bell diner, a couple of doors up from Mo Starr's news stand. It was a greasy spoon in every sense of the word, which did not keep people away. The owner or manager may be one of God's unsung heroes, because all the people working for him were ex-cons.
There were a couple of interesting places where Ontario Road and Ontario Place meet. One was a small grocery ("DGS" comes to mind) run by a Buddy Meyer. There was a small variety store and soda fountain next door run by a Mr. and Mrs. Magruder, where you could buy just about anything you couldn't get at Meyers.
There were no McDonald's or the like, so when my folks wanted to go out for something quick, it was usually to a place called Cafedon, on Columbia Road, a few doors up from Ontario Road. That food at that time was truly awful.
We would religiously buy Christmas trees from a Mr. Giulianni, who had sidewalk space next to a liquor store on that same intersection. There was a shoe repair place between the Cafedon and that liquor store, and I remember how friendly the owner was to all who passed. M&M Pharmacy was across the street. That stood for Micelli and McMahon, two more very friendly people.
I understand a place called Calvert Cafe has become popular. It's on Calvert Street, almost to the Bridge. The owner was, and maybe still is, a lady called Mama Ayeesha, and the cuisine was of course very Arabic. It was little known if at all that the cook contributing so much to that reputation was a very Polish friend of mine whose name shall be omitted here. I'd been going there since it was just your basic neighborhood tavern.
Is H. D. Cooke School still standing? The last time I was in there was in 1964 to vote in DC's first primary election. I may have been the only one in the precinct to vote for Barry Goldwater.
We retain the most trivial of thoughts: Another place in the 18th & Columbia area was called Adams Lock and Key. That used to be a barber shop, and it was where I got my first. Gartenhaus Furs, almost next door, used to be Riggs Bank.
Here's more trivia, or a quick way to win a $5 bet, hands down: If you are ever asked where Lithuania's Declaration of Independence was signed, the correct answer is 1660 16th Street, NW, in DC. I wish I knew more of that story, but I don't The US never recognized the USSR takeover of the Baltic countries in World War II, and a consulate or embassy or some "official" entity continued to represent Lithuanian interests. I was in grade school with the last ambassador's son.
Does anyone ever talk about Henderson Castle? I remember driving by it, but not much more than that. Weren't there tales of the Ghost of Henderson Castle?
As I re-read this, something disturbing emerges. What came to mind as I put this together were the very simple things that we may be poorer for lacking today: friendliness; innocence; trust; heroes; places we remember because they smelled good; even ghosts. Too bad it can't be put in a bottle and saved for our grandkids or put into a museum.
A final thought: This is pretty much "neighborhood" stuff. If anyone wants to get into broader recollections about DC itself in those days, I hope you'll let me know. Mickey Mantle's monster home run at Griffith Stadium and other Senators stories, the streetcars, Hot Shoppes, when GW had decent football teams, Uline Arena. There's so much!
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