In Washington Highlands, an ‘authentic’ neighborhood looks forward

For decades, Derek Davis offered reasonably priced haircuts and good conversation at Davis Barber Shop on Livingston Road in Southeast Washington. A beloved community institution established by his father, Willie Davis, the shop was once part of a healthy, if small, cluster of businesses in Washington Highlands. Gradually, the barber shop outlasted nearly all of them.

On Feb. 16, 56 years after it opened, the shop sent an email to a community list announcing the shop’s closure and a business liquidation sale.

Davis and his brother Marsten, the message said, “have fulfilled their promise to their father [and] did their very best to live out his dreams and legacy.” The shop’s closure, the email added, was driven by “continuing crime, political indifference, and violence.”

Davis, who lived in Washington Highlands until relocating to Maryland around 2018, said he still feels invested in a community he loves, even after deciding to pull up stakes.

“It’s a nice, quiet little area,” he said. “The community, we know about it.”

Longtime residents of Washington Highlands speak wistfully about the neighborhood. They love the beauty of its old houses, its scenic views and the caring spirit of those at the heart of the community. They also, however, speak plaintively of feeling abandoned and under-resourced at the outskirts of D.C. When revitalization does come — as seems inevitable given the neighborhood’s below-market house prices and the value of District real estate — they hope it won’t be at the expense of the residents who know and love Washington Highlands best.

Washington Highlands, which lies along the D.C.-Maryland border in the District’s Ward 8 and abuts the 126-acre forested space known as Oxon Run Parkway, was developed in the early 1900s. The hills from which the neighborhood draws its name offer vista views of the surrounding region, including Capitol Hill across the Anacostia River. Mature trees that line many of the neighborhood’s sidewalks offer shade in summer and bright foliage in fall.

Recently installed public art, such as a mural of a woman surrounded by birds against a backdrop of riotous spring green and pink by Baltimore-based artist Zéh Palito, offers unexpected pops of color.

“It’s beautiful,” Sonia Adams, a real estate agent with Exit Community Realty who lives in nearby Anacostia, said of Washington Highlands. “I think Southeast has some of the best views and some of the best-built homes on it.”

While the neighborhood is home to several low-income housing developments and apartment complexes, it also has stand-alone houses in a range of architectural styles dating to the neighborhood’s initial establishment, she said.

Adams, who worked in the Davis Barber Shop for 39 years — Derek Davis, she said, taught her to cut hair — said the neighborhood’s reputation for criminal activity tends to drive down values on houses that would sell for substantially more elsewhere in the District. She’s also wary of developers or gentrifiers who might invest in neighborhood real estate in ways that “won’t be for the benefit of the people who are here.”

According to Redfin, three single-family houses sold in Washington Highlands in the last year, ranging from a four-bedroom, four-bathroom unrenovated “investor special” over 2,900 square feet, for $645,000, to an as-is three-bedroom, 1.5 bathroom 1,100-square-foot brick house for $235,000. An additional 44 condominiums, townhouses and apartments also sold in the last year. There are 17 houses on the market, ranging from a three-bedroom rowhouse offered for $235,000 on short sale to a four-unit, seven-bedroom multifamily complex for $900,000. The median rent for a one-bedroom is $1,750.

Washington Highlands’ crime rate, particularly for violent offenses, has sometimes captured headlines. But Olivia Henderson, head of the Washington Highlands Civic Association and a former neighborhood commissioner, has also seen the caring side of a neighborhood she calls “authentic” D.C.

When her house was severely damaged by fire in 2022, Henderson said local businesses and community members surrounded her to make sure she and her son had what she needed and that her property was kept safe while the house was rebuilt.

“I think I just give back so much because this community has afforded me so much,” said Henderson, who was born and raised in the neighborhood.

Through the civic association, Henderson organizes holiday giveaways for families in need, promotes events like Friday night basketball games with D.C. police officers, and shares safety warnings and news updates. She said she’s never considered leaving Washington Highlands because the neighborhood helped raise her when she was growing up as one of seven in an impoverished family.

“I’m 50 years old,” she said. “I believe I have 50 more years to sit on my porch to be an auntie or a big mama to help the next person.”

Washington Highlands is bounded to the east, its longest edge, by Southern Avenue SE, which also creates the D.C.-Maryland border. Its other boundaries are 13th Street SE, Valley Avenue SE, and Livingston Road SE.

Hendley Elementary School, Hart Middle School and Ballou High School.

The Congress Heights Metro station, on the Green Line, is about half a mile from Washington Highlands’ northern edge. The Southern Ave. station, also on the Green Line, is roughly equidistant. The W1 bus stops in the neighborhood, and multiple bus lines stop along Southern Avenue SE on the eastern edge of the neighborhood.

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