Washington, D.C. Tour: Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights
The Latin American culture beats strong in these connecting neighborhoods, as does an unsuppressible indie spirit.
Mount Pleasant, an elbow thrust off the long arm of 16th Street, sprung to life as a streetcar suburb circa 1900. The extension of the line transformed the previously isolated village into a teeming area of up-and-comers and businesses catering to their tastes, such as Heller’s, one of the city’s oldest bakeries. Today’s community reflects the neighborhood’s later incarnation, as the new homeland of Spanish-speaking immigrants. The timeline of foreign arrivals started with Cubans in the 1950’s, followed by Central and South Americans in 1960’s and ‘70’s, and Salvadorians a decade later. Latin American flavors pervade Mount Pleasant, from the bodegas that advertise their sundries in Spanish to the pupusa vendors. The commercial district stretches only a few blocks down Mount Pleasant Street; for bigger (aka, box) stores, head a few blocks east to the revitalized section of Columbia Heights. Here, little gems sparkle bright amid the chains.
Nana, Washington, D.C.
Opened in 2003, Nana is a locally minded women’s clothing boutique that showcases independent American designers, many of whom use sustainable, organic and/or recycled fabrics. The store sells vintage-inspired and handmade items, such as dresses made of recycled fabric from designer Preloved. In addition, it carries owner Jackie Flanagan’s tunics and dresses sold under the house label. The inventory also includes jewelry and handbags, as well as unique finds like locally made lipgloss by Haughty. Nana’s selection of items from emerging designers, like Dagg & Stacey and Kelly Lane Design, has made the store a go-to destination for those seeking a classic, yet fashion-forward look.
Mexican Cultural Institute
The cultural branch of the Mexican embassy shares its rich south-of-the-border traditions with a variety of public events, many of which are free. Check the center’s calendar for festive celebrations of national holidays; gallery talks and exhibits (shows for 2012: folk art masks, and Jaina figurines and Mayan rituals); and cooking demos and dinners starring the popular TV host of Pati’s Mexican Table.
Meridian Hill Park
The 12-acre urban park, part of the National Park Service family, exemplifies early 20th-century neoclassical design. Inspired by the formal gardens of Italy and the Renaissance, the landscape is otherworldly with a cascading terraced fountain; statues of such formidable figures as Dante, Joan of Arc, and Serenity; and a drum circle that often jams on Sundays.
Village in the City: Mt. Pleasant Heritage Tour
On this self-guided walking tour, piece together the neighborhood’s history by following the 17 informational signs sprinkled throughout the protected historic district. The photo-strewn placards highlight specific events, people and sites that have helped shape Mount Pleasant, such as the district’s oldest home and “Czech Row.” Download a map on Cultural Tourism D.C.’s website or pick up a copy at participating businesses along the route.
Open since 1922, Heller’s tempts visitors with pastries, cakes and cookies that flashback to a more decadent age, one with more frosting, butter, and calories. Signature treats include mocha rum cakes, éclairs, and blocks of marshmallow doused in chocolate.
GALA Hispanic Theatre
The 36-year-old performing arts center embraces Latin American culture with bilingual programs held in the Tivoli Theater, an ornate movie palace built in 1924. The theater company stages classical and modern plays in Spanish and English, and hosts films, poetry events and dance extravaganzas, including a tango show that encourages the audience to twirl along with the pros.
Sticky Fingers Bakery
The two-time winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars bakes vegan cupcakes so rich and tasty, they could dupe even the most diehard dairy- and egg-eater. The retro-stylin’ shop doesn’t stop at the bitty cakes, either: Broaden your palate with a signature Cowvin cookie (oatmeal cookie sandwich with vanilla cream filling) or a Little Devil (a double-dare chocolate Devil Dog).
Taqueria Distrito Federal
The cubicle-size restaurant serves authentic Mexican fare. And while menu items are written in Spanish—tamales de puerco y pollo, rojos y verdas, they are thoughtfully described in English (“pork or chicken tamales with red or green sauce”). Eat indoors and watch the soccer game on TV and the action in the open kitchen, or grab a table outside and soak up the Columbia Heights sidewalk scene.
The corner hangout wears many hats: brunch spot, bar, music venue, d.j. danceteria. However, if you can only choose one, go for the beer garden, a spacious patio with communal picnic tables, trees draped in twinkling lights and chatty co-cocktailers. If possible, time your drink with Tuesday night’s live band karaoke.