Housing Complex

The Architect of Columbia Heights’ Transformation Leaves a Complicated Legacy

moore_125x192When Bob Moore was recruited in 1988 to direct the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, he surveyed the neighborhood and wasn't impressed with what he saw. There were "blocks and blocks of vacant houses," he told historian David Rotenstein in Becoming What We Can Be, a book of D.C. community development vignettes published in 2012 by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Down at the southern gateway to Columbia Heights, at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW, things had gotten so bad that they'd taken a turn for the bucolic. "It was nothing but vacant lots," Moore said. "People come to the front door and all they see is grass and corn and stuff."

It was here that Moore began his efforts to restore Columbia Heights' former glory, before it was wrecked in the 1968 riots. A quarter-century later, the neighborhood looks rather different. Renovated rowhouses routinely hit the market for upward of a million dollars. Small-plates restaurants, $14 cocktails, extensive beer lists, upscale tacos, and wait-list brunch spots complement the Mexican and Salvadoran dives that have held on.

Moore played a leading role in this transformation, heading the DCCH for more than two decades. Yesterday, he passed away, leaving behind a complicated legacy but one that left an indisputable mark on Columbia Heights and the city.

"He had a tremendous impact," says Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who in his first term as mayor appointed Moore to direct the Department of Housing and Community Development in 1979. "He had the respect of so many people."

"We will certainly miss Bob Moore's economic development leadership in our city," tweets Barbara Lang, who until earlier this year served as president and CEO of the DC Chamber of Commerce.

Moore came to the DCCH via an unconventional path. After leaving the D.C. government, he headed Camden, N.J.'s housing authority, until he admitted in 1987 to stealing $6,000 from the agency and served four months in prison. A few months after his release, he was hired by the DCCH.

He aimed to engineer the rebirth of Columbia Heights, symbolically naming one of the major projects he helped orchestrate, the Nehemiah Shopping Center on 14th Street, after the biblical figure who rebuilt Jerusalem. But his lasting legacy is a matter of dispute. As Columbia Heights developed, the Nehemiah strip mall, partly funded with public money, came to seem anachronistic and was torn down 13 years after it opened. (Many people now see the DC USA mall, spurred along by Moore and aided by public funds in an effort at revitalization, as similarly outdated.) A 2002 Washington Post investigation of the DCCH under his leadership found that the corporation had failed to deliver on many of its revitalization promises.

Barry dismisses this line of criticism. "I expect that from the Post," he says. "The Post is so anti-community, anti-black people doing their thing." Barry credits Moore with bringing together the black, white, and Latino populations of the neighborhood.

Moore also has Barry's gratitude on a more personal level. Moore, Barry says, connected him with the surgeon who treated him for prostate cancer in 1995. The doctor had a waiting list of longer than six months, but Barry says Moore, who knew the doctor, got him an appointment.

"And I’ve been cancer-free ever since," says Barry. "Bob’s came back, unfortunately. He fought till the very end. People said, 'Bob, you need to be at home in bed.' And he said, 'I have work to do.'"

Correction: This post initially credited Tony Proscio, the author of Becoming What We Can Be, for the quotes by Moore. In fact, Moore was interviewed by David Rotenstein, and Proscio used his interviews in compiling the book.

Photo from the DCCH website

  • A friend of Mr. Moore

    Rest in Peace and Power, Mr. Moore. There are many people -- everyday people -- in Washington whose lives have been impacted for the better by Mr. Moore. He mentored many fatherless young men.

    The facade restoration of many business on Park Road is a recent example of work of DCCH

    God bless his family and memory.

  • Typical DC BS

    Ah, another race-based hiring by ole Mayor-for-life Barry. Guy gets hand caught in the cookie jar in NJ, does time, then is welcomed with open arms in DC.

    Good thing hood politics is SOOOO wonderful, isn't it?

  • http://dcjack.org Jack McKay

    People who weren't here back in the 70s have no idea how terrible conditions were in Columbia Heights, for years after the 1968 riots. A lot of people fled, for the suburbs, or for safer neighborhoods, leaving the devastation behind, an urban wasteland. Look at Detroit, today: that was Columbia Heights, 40 years ago.

    But some people stayed, and fought to bring the inner city back to life. Columbia Heights today is prosperous, safe, and vibrant. Bob Moore was one of those who believed that recovery was possible, and worked hard to make it possible. Those of us who now live in the area owe him a great debt of gratitude. He made today's Columbia Heights possible.

  • Juana

    The old Nehemiah Center provided a safe haven for that most iconic of DC institutions, the much missed Chat and Chew. I have long thought that the perfect name encapsulating entirely what it was, a place to gather to chat and to chew.

    Those were the days when city subsidized rents were so low it didn't matter much if places like the "Chew" actually did any business. As long as "the man" was kept away all was good. Sure miss chattin' and chewin'!

  • OG in DC

    @ Typical-- did you actually read the article?! He wasn't hired by Barry after Camden. DCCH was a Community Development Corporation; their board hired him. Marion Barry is mentioned and no one can really can't see anything as it actually happened, apparently? The arc of Bob Moore's career was much greater than is captured here, and there are a lot more and better people who can tell his story than Marion Barry and Barbara Lang. A for effort, C + for actual reporting skills.

  • Merrick Malone

    Robert L. "Bob" Moore was a dear friend and colleague who invested in people and neighborhoods in Columbia Heights when it was hard to attract people let alone banks and real estate developers. He committed his life to the transformation of Columbia Heights and to the people who had lived through and in the aftermath of the 68 riots. He LOVED Columbia Heights and DCCH and we should NEVER forget his contribution to what we see in Columbia Heights today. It simply would not have been possible without Bob. Rest easy old Friend I know Leroy Hubbard is waiting for you.

  • a change gon’ come

    "the Mexican and Salvadoran dives that have held on." "Dives," really? Did you mean "more affordable"? I'm thinking The Raven is a dive and neither Mexican nor Salvadoran. Los Hermanos is Dominican, and not a dive. That those places are still around are the definition of community development, rather than community displacement.

  • Mechie L

    I am so grateful for what Robert did in 14th Street community. I have known him for multiple years and had no idea of the life he lived and the journey he had to take to make his life right. I pray that those that seem to be throwing stones has never made any mistakes. The one thing I know is that no matter how far you fall or how many times you fail, you can get back up and that's exactly what he did he got back up and he did good. He did real good. Be careful about judging others, it may come back to bite you. Rest easy Robert, rest easy. Those of us that truly knew you, appreciate everything that you did!!!!!

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