The Architect of Columbia Heights’ Transformation Leaves a Complicated Legacy
When 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