On any given weeknight at the Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights, you’ll find the usual cast of neighborhood regulars hunkered around the bar engaged in assorted chatter and drinking a variety of microbrews, imports and the ubiquitous Miller High Life and PBR. As Sergio Herrera and roommate Alan Petner, your typical Y Generation D.C. transplants and professionals in the real estate field, sat over the Ms. Pacman machine one Wednesday evening in late May 2007, they started talking about various local festivals.
Columbia Heights Day and After Hours Tour
Saturday, August 29
10 am to 2am
Join On Tap and the Columbia Heights Day Initiative as they celebrate their 3rd annual Columbia Heights Day Festival on Saturday, August 29th at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, Kenyon Street, NW. It all begins at 10am with a free yoga session hosted by Quiet Mind Yoga. The fun continues throughout the day, including the very popular and very messy vegan cupcake eating contest, hosted by Sticky Finger’s Bakery. Enjoy music from a wide-variety of bands including freestyle rapper Flex Mathews and the Crimestoppers, tap-dancing dynamo Buster Brown, reggae with Lucky Dub, rock from Bonjour Ganesh and some Latin flair with Clube do Samba. The fun doesn’t stop there, with Martial arts demonstrations, the crowning of the first ever Mr. and Miss Columbia Heights Day, a Guitar Hero Station, and free food samples, this family-friendly festival has something for everyone!
Columbia Heights Day “After Hours”
7pm to 2am
The fun doesn’t stop just because the sun starts to go down….meet us at The Heights for the 21 plus aspect of the day. Just register online (or just show up), check-in and receive your “After Hours” passport that takes you on a tour of area restaurants complete with food and beer specials! Then get to Wonderland by midnight to enter to win fun raffle prizes. The event is free and open to 21 and over only. Complete details can be found online at www.ontaponline.com/columbiaheightsday
“I read they’re not doing Mt. Pleasant Day again this year,” noted Petner, an avid reader of local blogs on entertainment and development.
“I don’t understand why there isn’t a Columbia Heights Day? Everyone else has a festival,” Serge replied.
“There’s certainly enough development going on up on 14th Street to warrant it,” Petner agreed. “I’m sure there’ll be one in the next couple of years.”
“Yeah, but that’s 14th Street. What about everything that’s going on down here on 11th Street? Nobody knows how cool our neighborhood is,” Serge countered.
“So, what do you want to do about it?”
What happened after that night would change their lives and the spirit of their neighborhood forever. Petner and Herrera, in addition to being roommates at the time, have been best friends for half their lives and brainstormed ideas on a regular basis, but this was different. Herrera decided it was time to “put-up or shut-up” and contacted Matthew McGovern, Wonderland’s proprietor, and another friend — me — the next day.
Matthew was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. He and his wife, Rose Donna, opened the Wonderland Ballroom in 2004 and in that time it has become not just an exciting dance and singles venue on the weekends, but sort of a “student union” for neighbors of all ages.
I had moved into my “aunt’s” house diagonally across the street the previous fall. The “aunt,” Marcia Greene, purchased the place, which is affectionately referred to as the Pink House, in 2000. Historically, it had been run as an affordable boarding house for local women in Columbia Heights and, when Marcia bought it, she carried forth that mission until retirement.
When I moved in, I saw it as a privilege. I felt the need to carry forth the values of the Pink House in the community. When I got the text from Serge, I was thrilled, because it seemed like just the sort of thing we should be doing.
The next day, the three of us sat on my deck and started planning what would become the First Annual Columbia Heights Day Festival. The first step: get in touch with our Council Member, Jim Graham, and gain his support. After volleying many emails back and forth, a date was selected and the magnitude of our undertaking quickly became clear. In the weeks that followed, we attended neighborhood association meetings, spoke to local business owners and met with the principal of the local elementary school, Harriet Tubman. The feedback was positive and we knew it was time to make it official. So in June 2007, the non-profit Columbia Heights Day Initiative was born.
While Herrera, Petner and I constituted the Board of Directors and handled most of the planning, the festival would not have happened without Iris Chavez, who came on board to chair the Logistics Committee, and Wonderland Owner Rose Donna, who signed on to chair the Volunteer Committee. In addition to the sweat equity of the board, chairs and volunteers, Wonderland helped fund the festival and was, in fact, its largest donor.
“Of all the awards we receive, Best Neighborhood Bar is the most important to us, since it means being able to provide a venue where this type of community action can be inspired and developed,” explained Rose Donna. “I have to say, the most exciting part for me is to watch how this project has transformed lives.”
In the months that followed, the scope of the festival regularly expanded and then contracted.
“We aimed for the stars and hit the ceiling quite a few times, but we kept reminding ourselves that it was just the first year and, honestly, we had only given ourselves four months to plan,” Petner recalled.
The great thing about our neighborhood is that most everyone has some sort of special talent and is community service minded. So it was easy to get people in the neighborhood to donate their talents and skills. When we developed our credo of “community, diversity, and service” we felt that this not only represented our own values, but those of the neighborhood.
After four months of intense planning, the first official Columbia Heights Day was held on Saturday, October 6th on the grounds of Harriet Tubman Elementary School. The event was free and open to all ages and was truly a community event. Local venues donated food; there was a children’s area with a moon-bounce; a diverse line-up of music; a food and clothing drive; and various local businesses, community service organizations, government agencies, and artisans were represented. In addition, local restaurants ran specials all day for patrons wearing an official Columbia Heights Day shirt. Mayor Adrian Fenty called it the “most organic festival” he had the privilege of attending.
In mid 2007, the Columbia Heights area was growing rapidly. The Heights, RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria and Rita’s Water Ice all opened over the summer. 14th Street was beginning to take shape as a real retail district and one could begin to see what the newly planned DC USA Mall would do to change the landscape of the community. Soon there would be a Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, Staples and Washington Sports Club, all where an old Waffle House once stood. 11th Street was developing in its own right, with dining patios at Wonderland Ballroom and RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria anchoring the corridor between Kenyon and Park Streets. Additionally, other local community fixtures began to attract new business, like Latino favorites Accurio and El Rinconcito, as an influx of new residents began to move into the condo and apartment high-rises popping up around the metro stop.
Now, in just two short years, Columbia Heights is one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in the district and today DC USA is one of the most popular shopping malls in the area. The proprietors of Hank’s Oyster Bar opened CommonWealth in 2008 and have joined the plentitude of eateries by the metro. The owners of Asylum will be holding down the other end of 11th and Park with the soon-to-be-opened Merridian Pint.
The first two Columbia Heights Day Festivals have been modest, but the organization is growing, doubling the volunteer staff and budget year-over-year.
“I wanted to do something to root myself in the community,” Serge said in explaining his motivation to launch the festival. “We are all business professionals and this has gone a long way in teaching us important management, networking and communication skills — skills you rarely have a chance to develop to such a degree when you’re working for somebody else’s goals.”
This year’s Columbia Heights Day Festival has expanded its programming to include a second stage of exhibitions and performers, a petting zoo, and a vegan cupcake-eating contest. Well regarded local hip-hop artist, Flex Matthews, will be returning for year three, this time paired with backing band, The Crimestoppers.
Co-founder Petner is leaving soon to return to his native Texas, but reflecting on his success in turning a bar bull session into a thriving festival he said, “It shows the youth that not only can you do it, but you should do it. No matter how big or small your idea is, the more people that get involved in their communities, the better off we will all be. Don’t be intimidated to start from the ground up, because every little bit of your effort will energize the people around you to make something more positive happen than what existed in its place before you started.” Looking at the renovation of Harriet Tubman’s field and the mosaic mural being built across from his house, he added, “I always leave it better than I found it.”