Dear PoPville – New To Columbia Heights – advice on safety?

Photo by PoPville flickr user dullshick

“Dear PoPville,

I am a female professional in my mid-20’s who just moved to Columbia Heights (around 14th and Newton) and I love it so far but have heard conflicting things about the safety of the surrounding blocks and my area in general (even during broad daylight). Do you have any tips for young women living in the area in terms of safety? And areas/blocks to avoid in particular?”

Living anywhere in the city, it is important to have general street smarts. MPD (police) remind us over and over again not to use our smartphones distractedly (or even at all in public or on metro). But definitely don’t walk with your head down while texting etc. Also, don’t walk home by yourself, especially if you’ve been drinking, late at night. Basically try not to make yourself a target – be confident, be aware of your surroundings and you will be fine. Crime happens all over the District and it can happen even if you are aware of your surroundings but it is not likely. I also think it is important not to obsess over it either. Be smart and you’ll be fine. Have fun and enjoy the great neighborhood!

Do any women who live in the area have other advice to offer?

69 Comment

  • I live in the same area. Dont wear headsets – you want to hear what is happening around you. get to know your neighbors – say hi to them every chance you get so they know who you are. My best advice is ALWAYS take a cab home when it is dark and make sure the cab driver sees you go into your house.

    • +1

      I live a block away from you. Another tip, keep your cellphone in your purse. I got robbed in broad daylight with tons of people on the street.

      • Or in your pocket, if possible. That way, if your purse gets snatched (again, this has never happened to me!) you still have your phone.

    • I too live around that area and can’t agree more about getting to know your neighbors! Say hi to everyone, you’d be surprised how sometimes the groups of guys that may seem scary at first become the guys that watch out for you on your walk home.

    • Totally agree on saying hello to everyone. I used to live on Newton at 14th and would say hello to everyone on my way home. Walk like you know where you’re going and just be aware. Keeping your phone in your bag/pocket also makes sure you know what is going on around you. A few times I didn’t take a cab, dumbest thing ever. Was, thankfully, always fine, but why risk it?

  • I think PoP hit all my tips. I’ve lived near you for 8 years, and never had an incident worse than being hissed at or being called a bitch by a crackhead. (Doesn’t that make it sound like a nice place??)
    — Never out alone past 11:30 or so, and never out stumbly drunk at any hour, alone or not. (Get ‘faced at home!)
    — No headphones after dark, and only low volume any other time. Never looking at the phone itself.
    — Confidence. I have Bitchy Resting Face, and I honestly think it helps.

    • Maybe one more.
      — don’t open your door to strangers. If you can’t see through it, shout through it. But do let them know that there’s someone home, in case of casing. (That story about the couple who opened their door to a girl crying on their porch, whose friends then busted in a tied up the couple and robbed then, haunts me.) Around our neighborhood, it’s mostly guys who want to mow your lawn or tell you about Jehovah, but just don’t take that risk.

      • Waaaaah? I never heard that story. Wow scary!

        • Just a reminder, that story didn’t happen in Col. heights, but still good advice of course. I’m a woman and have lived in this neighborhood for 5 years. Knock on wood but never had anything bad happen except a a few drunken catcalls and the occasional drugged out person being scary and rambling. But that happens in any big city and in any neighborhood that isn’t totally residential. Listen to the other commentators advice (no looking at cell phone or wearing headphones at night, no stumbling home drunk alone, generally do not walk around at 3am since that seems to be when all the really bad shit happens in this town). you’ll be fine.

  • I haven’t specifically lived in Columbia Heights, but I’ve lived in the District for 12 years including U St (pre-development) and Carver-Langston (think Trinidad, but further east). That is to say I’ve lived in some pretty rough neighborhoods and being a petite female, it can be a bit intimidating.
    I’d say the best thing you could do is keep your head up, look people in the face, say hello, act confident and like you know where you’re going. If you seem like you are lost or are not paying attention, that makes you a more appealing target. Also, don’t go walking around alone at night and that goes for anywhere in the city, even “safe” areas. I’d give this advice to men just the same as I would to women.
    Most importantly, if your gut is telling you a situation or person seems sketchy, get yourself outta there as fast as possible! Don’t worry about insulting anyone or being “nice” or politically correct. Your safety is far more important!

    • “Don’t worry about insulting anyone or being “nice” or politically correct. Your safety is far more important!”
      Best advice here. So many victims of crime that I know had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, but they were too preoccupied with being “mean”. Don’t be a sucker and don’t let guilt interfere with your judgment.

      • +1. Gavin de Becker’s book “The Gift of Fear” is frequently recommended by Carolyn Hax with regard to abusive relationships, but it’s also very applicable with regard to street safety. It emphasizes that you should listen to your instincts when they tell you that something is sketchy or “off,” and don’t worry about being “nice” or “polite.”

    • I have to respectfully add my 2 cents on the “don’t go walking around alone at night” piece of advice–although I guess that depends on one’s definition of “night.” I hear that often, and sometimes it frustrates me, because honestly, it’s just not practical. I’m not saying I would take a leisurely midnight stroll around Columbia Heights, U Street, Trinidad, et al for no reason, but there a number of obligations (work, classes, volunteer gigs, etc.) that keep me out after dark and sometimes even until around 11/11:30pm. I live alone, and taxi-ing that frequently is out of my budget. (Granted, I’m a bit old and stodgy for late-night partying, so I’m not really in situations where I’m walking home as late as 2 or 3am.) It is what it is, and to the greatest extent possible, I have to try to live life and do my day-to-day activities without fear. All that is with the caveat that this philosophy is what works for me, personally. I would never try to push my safety standards on someone else, as everyone has different comfort levels (based on a whole host of factors) and should do what feels right and safe for them.

      • Emmaleigh504

        Well said.

      • I agree with you, and I suppose I should specify “at night” to mean the wee hours of the morning as in midnight-5am. Honestly crime can and will happen at any time of day or night, but there is a higher chance of it happening if you’re walking home alone at 1am. I just wouldn’t make a habit of doing that if possible.

      • Well said. It annoys me so much when people are like well just never walk alone at night and take a cab everywhere you go and never ever get drunk and then walk outside like….half the reason a city like DC is a great place to live is because of the nightlife and accessible public transportation. Not walking alone at night is just not an option for most people I know so just be aware. There’s only so much any of us can do and crime is just a part of living in a city.

      • Totally agree. The “don’t walk alone at night” thing always bugged me too, especially in winter when “night” begins at 5pm.

        It depends on the location, situation, and your comfort level. When I lived in SW I would take a cab home if it was after 11pm (or drive, if I knew I would be late). The area isn’t dangerous, but it does get very empty and quiet at night so I felt safer that way. Now I live right off of 18th & Florida and there are enough people around where I usually feel comfortable walking a bit later if I need to. Definitely put on a confident face, look people in the eye, and keep a firm grip on your purse.

        If you can, I do agree with not carrying a purse when you go out at night. It’s a lot easier in winter when you have more pockets, but aside from safety it’s also just more convenient to not have to juggle a bag while at a bar. Years ago I got a money clip with a credit card holder and it’s perfect for carrying an ID and some cards/cash for a night out (and it fits well in a tight pocket or can be clipped to the inside of a skirt/pants waistband).

      • brookland_rez

        I’m the same way. I try to be reasonably cautious but at the same time I have to live my life. I’ve lived in some rougher parts of NE and this philosophy has served me well for almost 10 years.

    • Totally agree. I would also add that, to me, walking around with your head up, and not worrying about being “nice” also means not hesitating to look over your shoulder. If you hear footsteps behind you, or even if you don’t I think it’s a good idea to look over your shoulder every half a block or so just to make sure you are completely aware of your surrounding on all sides. Yes, I’ve offended a few guys for repeatedly checking on them when they’re walking behind me, but I’ve also have some who apologized when they realized that it looked to me like they were following me.

      When we moved to Columbia Heights I made sure to keep my head up, look people in the eyes, and say “hi!” to people I pass on the street at every chance. I began doing so as a measure of safety, but it’s become the best part about walking around the neighborhood and I’ve had some great interactions with people in the neighborhood as a result! So what was just a good personal safety practice is now also just being friendly in my neighborhood, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I still don’t ignore my intuition, if something doesn’t feel right, I don’t hesitate do whatever I need to get out of a situation – cross the street, walk into a restaurant, etc.

  • PoP gives solid advice!! As a long time city dweller, I always walk with confidence with my held high, no matter what neighborhood I’m in. Even if I’m lost, I walk like I know where I’m going. I never use my smart phone or headphones while walking around, even in “safe” neighborhoods. At night I walk in well-lit busy streets instead of dark, quiet streets, even it means a longer walk home. If I’m drunk I take a cab home, always. Agreed that crime can happen anywhere, so don’t obsess over it! Enjoy your new hood.

  • I would suggest not carrying a purse and not using your smartphone unless you absolutely have to. Ive lived in the area for several years, and while it has gotten a lot better, there are still some problems. There really isnt that much you can do other than try not to make yourself a target. The neighborhood schools, particularly Bell Multicultural, are the primary culprits. The kids get out of school in the afternoons and disperse through the neighborhood causing all kinds of problems (especially littering). That said, you cant really blame them, as they presumably dont have much to go home to. Just keep your head up, your eyes open, and your wits about you though and you should be fine!

    • Wow…. what a generalization. Students at Bell have nothing to go home to? What does that have to do with neighborhood safety?

      • Sadly, I have to agree. The kids from Bell are the primary cause of all the trash strewn about the neighborhood. Take a stroll down Hyatt Place sometime and see for yourself. Theyre also known for being very obnoxious and running wild through the streets for hours after school lets out. And its not just confined to the blocks close to the school, as Ive seen large groups of them harrassing people many blocks away. Poor parenting I assume.

        • saf

          Wow. Look, junior high kids are junior high kids (that is, BRATS) no matter where, or how well parented.

          So, complain about bratty teenagers all you want, but stop making assumptions because of where the kids live and what they look like.

    • Seriously? “Don’t carry a purse”? That’s kind of an extreme tip since, for many women, carrying a purse makes our lives waaaay more convenient. And people still get mugged all the time when they’re not carrying bags (i.e. most men).

      • I am a woman who carries a notoriously large purse during the day and for work or just-after work activities. However, when I go out at night I make a conscious effort to shed anything I don’t need for that event or that I don’t want to risk losing. I take one credit card, my license, some cash, my house keys (leaving my office key at home), and my phone. When I go out in the city, I operate under the assumption that there is a possibility I will be mugged or could possibly just have one drink too many and forget my purse in the ladies room of some bar. My policy is to take only what’s necessary because it would be a huge inconvenience to deal with losing everything at once.

      • Not to mention that most women’s clothes are made either with small pockets or no pockets at all.

        I used to be able to go without a purse in the late 1990s, when all I had was a wallet and a keychain with three keys. With a cell phone and a larger number of keys, that’s just not possible any more.

  • I’ve lived in Columbia Heights for over two years and share your concerns and thankfully have never been involved in a crime. If you sign up for the crime watch texts, you’ll learn that there is a mugging almost every day in Columbia Heights, and they occur at all hours of the day and night.

    Just as mentioned above, the best tip is to not make yourself an easy target. Most of these crimes appear to be crimes of opportunity. To avoid being easy prey, I’d stick to major routes as much as possible, make eye contact with people so they know you see them, don’t look distracted, don’t wave expensive items around, and if someone makes you uncomfortable just cross to the other side of the street. If you’ve been drinking a lot, play it safe by grabbing a cab to your door. I also have a keychain alarm / panic button, and thankfully have never had to use it.

    Columbia Heights is a great place to live, and you’ll see that there are people out and about (jogging, walking their dogs, going out) at all hours. The neighborhood has many more wonderful people than bad people, so there’s no need to get anxious or adjust your activities. Just stay vigilant, and you’ll be fine!

  • I think the most important thing for women, especially young women, is not to worry about being “polite” or “nice.” I think sometimes we’ve been so trained to do so that it can put you in some scary situations. If someone is giving you a bad feeling, you don’t have to talk to them . Don’t worry about what they think. (this applies to bars, clubs, etc too, not just on the street.) You don’t have to worry about that the weird dude on the corner that sketches you out thinks you’re rude, just cross to the other side of the street.

    And just basic stuff, lock your doors, don’t walk home by yourself when you’re hammered, pay attention to your surroundings.

  • epric002

    agree with most of the advice on here. i moved to north coheights/south petworth a year ago and honestly, i love the neighborhood. that being said, i made a conscious decision that i was going to be a good new neighbor. i say hi to and smile at (almost) everyone i pass on the street (both for safety and to be friendly). i introduced myself to my neighbors, i’ve become friendly with many of them and at the very least wave. i walk my dogs often. i’ve only had 1 bad interaction with anyone this whole time (knock on wood), but hope that by being friendly and visible i am recognized by most people as a part of the neighborhood. i do try and avoid walking by myself, even with the dogs, later than about 10pm. always be aware of your surroundings and trust your gut.

    • epric002

      oh yes, and ALWAYS keep your doors and windows locked. and i definitely appreciate having an alarm system.

      • +1. It seems like it should be common sense to lock your doors and windows, but I had a neighbor whose house was repeatedly broken into because they kept leaving their back door unlocked (whether it was on purpose or not, I don’t know).
        Alarm system is definitely a nice to have, and I also appreciate the fact that my dogs are big and sound scary (though they would probably welcome an intruder into the house- lousy guarders!). A police officer who routinely patrolled my neighborhood once told me that dogs are the number one deterrent to break ins, even over alarm systems. Of course, that’s not to say you should go and get a dog expressly for that purpose, but if you have one or want one for companionship, it’s an added bonus!

        • Emmaleigh504

          My parents’ house got broken into and their fraidy cat greyhound scared them off! They went so far as to put stuff in front of the door to the room she was in so she couldn’t chase them as they left. lol Like that lazy dog was going to get out of bed if there was not food involved. The criminals were not too bright, they stole some non-alcoholic beer and costume jewelry.

  • Another thing you can do – get a bike. Especially if you need to get around at night.
    All my friends who have been victims of crime in DC were on foot. If you’re on a bike, you’re less likely to be accosted and can make an escape more quickly.
    Yes, some people are attacked while riding their bike. But it happens much less frequently than crime against pedestrians.

    • Surely you’re not implying that one is implicitly safe just because they are on a bike. What about that poor guy that was shot dead on his bike a year or two ago? What about the people on bikes that have had b-b-guns shot at them? Don’t even get me started on the MBT. You might be a bit safer, but please – vigilance is the key here no matter your mode of transport.

      • Which is why I ended my statement with the parenthetical. Yes, bad things do happen to people on bikes. But the rate of crime incidence (e.g. being assaulted or mugged) is MUCH lower against people on bikes than people walking on the street. And, of course, you should always be vigilant. I think that biking gives you certain advantages that you don’t have when you’re on foot.

  • Perfect your “bus face”. I always try to look busy and slightly frustrated, and when walking, I walk with purpose.

  • I lived two blocks north of that intersection for a year when I first moved here two years. I was 22 and also concerned.

    I thankfully never had any problems but if I was walking alone after dark (pretty unavoidable when it gets dark at 5:30pm in the winter) I would always take my ID and credit cards and phone out of my purse and put it in inconspicuous pockets or in my bra. Figured if my purse got snatched or I got mugged, the culprit would be far away by the time he/she figured out all they got was some makeup and a few half-used gift cards.

    Other thing I did was take my friend’s old smartphone, which didn’t work but didn’t look damaged, and start carrying it around in my purse. That way if I ever got mugged for a phone specifically (as happened to my friend in that neighborhood) I could hand one over without giving up mine.

    • I often do the same thing with my id/credit card/phone and my friends all make fun of me. They can make fun all they want, but if someone every steals my purse, I’ll be glad I did it!

    • Guys can do a similar thing by having a dummy wallet with a few bucks (make sure it has a small amount so they don’t think you’re playing them and invoke anger) and expired cc’s in it. Also an old phone in your jacket pocket during winter is a good idea.

  • The OP brings up a real question about the conflicting information about danger in the neighborhood and in terms of specific blocks or areas. I’d appreciate if people could comment more on which specific blocks/parts of the neighborhood are particularly problematic, because from what I can tell from reading crime alerts here on Popville, there are real differences.

    While I know crime is a real issue in Columbia Heights, I feel like the comments here are slanting towards overemphasizing the danger/level of precautions that the OP ought to be taking. I am a mid twenties woman myself, and have lived in the area (though further south, on Euclid) for the last year and a half. While there have been incidents near my house I have never felt like a target or in danger. While I am an experienced city dweller who knows to look confident and cross the street when necessary, I certainly walk with headphones and use my smartphone during the day and when it is dark but early (pre 10pm?). Late at night I keep my phone out of sight unless I need it for something. I sometimes walk at night alone, though I usually bike, and am reassured that the streets are almost never empty. I understand that I am taking risks, but this is what I feel comfortable with.

  • Good advice all around, but times like this remind me of how sad it is that this is our reality in DC. Having lived in a couple European cities, it still strikes me from time to time how weird it is that there are few places in DC where fear of crime isn’t at least *somewhat* on your mind and doesn’t influence your actions in ways large and small.

    • Hell, even in NYC isn’t as bad as DC. I have my guard up much more in DC than I ever did while living in NYC from 2000-2009.
      Then again, 900 sq foot 1 bedroom apartments in my friend’s building in Ft. Green in Brooklyn are selling for north of $800K. So while I gripe about DC prices, we got it good. LOL.

  • My 2 cents: learn martials arts – even if it’s just for the confidence. I pity the idiot that tries to mess with one of the better trained jiu-jitsu ladies (or men).

  • one more imprtant note. There are several men who knock on my door to ask for money. NEVER open your door to ANY person you dont know, including people soliciting. There are lots of scammers in DC. Beware of the scams – raising money for school, broken down car, waiting for a locksmith….etc.

  • Another good tip – not just for CH, but everywhere really. Have a little coinpurse and keep a bare amount of change in it. So when you need a couple dollars to add money to your smartcard, buying a bottle of water from a street vendor, etc, you pull that out instead of your whole wallet with your ID, cards and whatever in it. If someone grabs it, you only lost a couple bucks and don’t have to deal with the DMV and credit card companies.

  • When riding a metro escalator and wearing a skirt, stand sideways (facing inward) so you can see who is behind you. Upskirt shots happen here.

  • If I’m heading home alone I always text a friend, “I’m walking home, I’ll text you when I get in safely” and then do so when I arrive. You should also consider signing up for Car2Go (and Uber, though it’s pricier). It’s nice to have the occasional door-to-door travel option if you need it! I never skimp on transportation, can’t put a price on safety. I’m also big on the fake phone call — if you feel someone’s creeping on you, pretend to accept a call. “Hey! I’m at the corner of 14th and Newton. Oh! I think I see you!” and head off purposefully, away from potential trouble. Lastly, no iPhone is worth your life so if you do find yourself in a ~situation, best to hand it over. I was definitely raised to look over my shoulder, and I think I’m more cautious than most, but you can never be too careful as I always say. Hope this helps!

  • One of the things I do late night walking home (as a single girl) is to carry my house keys in my hand with the sharp key end between my knuckles. I understand you can’t walk around all the time like this, and it won’t do much good against a deadly weapon, but there have been moments when I felt a little safer knowing I had a semi-sharp object ready if I needed it.

  • One more thing — there are free self-defense classes in DC, including one at Yoga District (“Rape Self Defense Seminar with Martial Arts Basics”). Whether you ever use the skills you learn or it just gives you peace of mind knowing you can defend yourself – definitely worthwhile.

  • Here’s a question for people in the neighborhood – what’s the safest walking route home from the 11th Street section of bars and restaurants to the 14th Street residential areas (Monroe, Newton, etc.)? Because it’s so close, I can’t justify taking a taxi and having someone walk home with me is often not an option if the other people are also female and live elsewhere because then they’d have to walk alone themselves, but none of the blocks between 11th and 14th are that well lit or well-traversed that I feel great. I’m leaning toward Park, but does anyone have a better suggestion?

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned OC (pepper) spray – I don’t have it myself but have been thinking about it because it is legal in DC and it seems like if direct eye contact and scowly face are good deterrents then holding a small canister openly would be a great deterrent, especially if having to walk alone in the wee hours after drinking.

    • Take Park because of all the late night activity around the Giant. FWIW, I’ve lived in the area for 6 years and have never had any problems walking from 11th to NW CH, even at 2 in the morning.

    • I agree — Park Road is the most high-trafficed and well-lit cross street connecting 11th and 14th. The Giant on Park Road also has a police officer standing near the door 24 hours a day.

  • Young Bright light thing from Danbury or Kohler wisc. or Great Ben..wherever you light young creatures come from welcome….My Father came to DC to be a cop 1955 i was born in the early 60s -24th and L ..I own 3 properties and have a family of 4 in far norhwest….Newton and nearby hoods experienced over 1500 hundred homicides from 1987- 1997 1000s of robberies of what few commercial establishments that were their at that time..Your concerns of 2013 are in the relm of possibilities but are improbable due the law of averages and the declining population who would commit such crimes…but my opening statement was to remind you and your friends how far center city DCHAS COME FROM THE 1950S LET ALONE THE BAD OLD street wise and stey away from Sherman ave north of Irving after 8pm all of Petworth after dark until 2018 do not do the party girl walk without friends after 9pm thurs-sat…. Thanks for helping change my city….

  • I live in the same area and I got robbed a couple of years ago coming home from work. Don’t wear headsets, don’t have your phone out and don’t ever walk home alone late at night. Also, I recommend wearing a cross-body strap purse (makes you less of a target for purse snatching), and if possible keep your cell and keys in your coat pocket rather than purse in case it does get snatched.

    In general, just be aware of who’s around you. Try to avoid dark, lonely alleys and report sketchy things (like flashers) to the MPD. Stuff happens in CH, but you can minimize your risk by being careful. And it’s a REALLY great neighborhood to live in 🙂

  • I’ve lived at that intersection for a year and a half and no one has ever bothered me. I’ve never seen anything that makes me uncomfortable. Be cautious, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Even the people on that street that look like trouble, are really nice and friendly if you look them in the eye, smile and say “hi.”

  • 1.) Residential streets aren’t safer – some kid tried to snatch my phone off my ear while I was talking on it at 4pm yesterday on Holmead and Newton. Be aware of the people around you; if you do talk, use a headset and jam your phone into your pocket.

    2.) I might be crap for this but – be aggressive. Don’t be afraid to yell at creepers, or feel like you can’t call the cops for just feeling scared. Cops in this part of town have done well by me.

  • A couple tips I haven’t seen, yet. I live on 14th street, a couple blocks above you. Don’t walk down alleys, even in the day. I got followed and verbally harrassed once and no one was around to witness. #2 – Don’t approach your front door or gate if someone is around. This is difficult on busier streets but I will change my pace so I get to my gate alone. I had a group of men literally try to pick me up and walk away with me one night because I had paused at my gate to enter my code as they were walking up. I screamed at them as loud as I could until they were too nervous I had caught a bystander’s attention. And finally, I always have my keys in one hand and mace in another (in my pocket) to be ready. Good luck!

  • Pepperspray. It’s legal and can be purchased at Ace Hardware. I keep it in my pocket with my finger on the trigger at all times since I had a near miss with someone I’m absolutely positive (he said he wanted to) would have raped me if it weren’t for my neighbor coming out of the house at just the right moment. Be sure you know how to use it and make sure the one you buy works. Always wear shoes you can run in.

    I second all the people saying to get to know your neighbors. They’ll look out for you if they know who you are. I was lucky to have known the guy who came out and could say his name. Pretty sure it saved me.

  • This comment thread has some great advice (the ladies of POP know their stuff) but MAN is it depressing. I just want to buy all of you a drink and we can hug it out. 🙂

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