The boundaries of Brightwood are easy to define and have been for many years. In the mid-nineteenth century, Brightwood generally encompassed the region north of Brightwood Park, west of Chillum, east of Rock Creek, and south of the Maryland line. Today, the Brightwood Community Association, an association of residents and business owners from the western part of Brightwood, define the neighborhood's boundaries as Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Aspen Street to the north, 16th Street and Rock Creek Park to the west, Georgia Avenue to the east, and Kennedy Street to the south. Other widely accepted variations bound Brightwood on the east by 5th Street. The DC Government's Citizens Atlas bounds the Brightwood Assessment Neighborhood to the south at Missouri Avenue. Nearby neighborhoods include Shepherd Park and Takoma to the north, Manor Park to the east, and Sixteenth Street Heights and Petworth to the south. According to the 2010 census, the neighborhood had 11,242 residents.
Much of the retail in the neighborhood is located along Georgia Avenue. Although no Metrorail stations lie within the neighborhood, the Takoma Metrorail station is within walking distance from the northern end of the neighborhood. The Fort Totten Metro Station is also within walking distance from other areas of Brightwood. There are several Metrobus routes that serve the community.
Brightwood is at an elevation of 292 feet (89 m).
The land was part of a land patent called White Mill Seat in 1756. The name was changed to Peter's Mill Seat in 1800. Later, the area was called Crystal Springs, named after the pure water that flowed from several nearby springs. One of the springs was located near the modern-day intersection of Fourteenth and Kennedy streets, which still flows in the present day, creating a constant stream of water on the sidewalk of the western side of Fourteenth Street, across from the Metrobus building. The area had many chestnut trees, and it was considered a place to enjoy with family. The Passenger Railroad Company ran hourly stagecoaches from Fourteenth Street and Boundary Avenue to the springs, charging 25 cents per ride.
The area was later known as Brighton, but residents decided to change the name to Brightwood because the postal service frequently confused it with Brighton, Maryland. Archibald White and Louis Brunett are generally given credit for coming up with the name Brightwood. The area has been known as Brightwood since the 1840s.
Emory M.E. Church was built in 1832, when A.G. Pierce donated a half-acre of land in order to build a church and a school. The original building stood two stories high. The first floor, made of logs, was used as a school. The second story, which was made of frame and used for worship, had a separate entrance from the outside. Colored worshippers sat in a gallery. The church was named after John Emory of Queen Anne's County, Maryland, who was ordained bishop in 1832, the same year as the building of the church. Bishop Emory also paid the $200 salary of the preacher's salary. In 1856, the 72-person congregation of desired a larger church, and the church building was replaced by a red-brick structure in 1856. A stone church stood from 1870 to 1921, when the present-day building was built. The churchyard was originally used as a cemetery, a customary use of such land in those days. Some of the deceased were later moved to Rock Creek Cemetery.
Brightwood is also home to Fort Stevens. During the Civil War, the Union military decided to build a fortification on the site of Emory Church. The church was torn down, and the bricks were used to build Fort Stevens and baking ovens. A nearby log building used by the church was also torn down and used to build a guardhouse for unruly soldiers. Fort Stevens was attacked by 20,000 Confederate soldiers led by General Jubal Early during the Battle of Fort Stevens, July 11–12, 1864. The Confederate attack was repulsed. The congregation petitioned Congress for compensation for the torn-down church, Congress appropriated $412 for rent for use of the grounds. Following petitions from veterans formerly stationed at the fort, Congress established a park at the site and a memorial plaque. Forty soldiers are buried in the nearby historic Battleground National Cemetery. An 1885 police census documented the population of Brightwood as 104.
Brightwood was home to a horse racetrack originally named Crystal Springs Park, then Piney Branch Park, and finally Brightwood Trotting Park. A tavern was nearby, operated by Frederick G. Rohr and later by his widow Annie M. Rohr. It was common for people to watch the races, swim in nearby Rock Creek, and have a picnic lunch. After many years, Brightwood Trotting Park greatly decreased in popularity. During its last year of operation, it was primarily used for racing mules. The course was closed in 1909 in order to make way for the extension of Sixteenth Street.
Moreland's Tavern sat at the corner of modern-day Georgia and Missouri avenues before the Civil War. The building later became the Brightwood Club House, known for being a nice place to ride a horse and enjoy a drink. It eventually became the site of a Masonic Temple.
Brightwood was also the location of the first successful flight by a helicopter in the United States in 1909.
The Sheridan Theater, a motion-picture theater, opened on Georgia Avenue between Rittenhouse and Sheridan Streets in 1937. The first feature was Sing Me A Love Song.
Other historic sites include Engine Company 22 on Georgia Avenue NW, Fort View Apartments, which overlook the site of Fort Stevens and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Military Road School, which opened in 1864 and was one of the first schools in Washington to open after Congress authorized the education of African Americans.
Redevelopment of the commercial area along Georgia Avenue is in progress. Condominiums were completed at the corner of Georgia and Missouri Avenues in 2006, and a new restaurant called Meridian on the first floor of the building opened in January 2008. Meridian closed in June 2008, and then reopened as Brightwood Bistro in August 2008. As of May 2012, the Brightwood Bistro has closed and the space is looking for a new tenant.
Foulger-Pratt Development Inc., the company that redeveloped much of downtown Silver Spring, had plans to build a new building with 400 residential units, restaurants, retail, and underground parking at the former site of the Curtis Chevrolet dealership at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street. The D.C. Historical Preservation Society requested that Foulger-Pratt's design incorporate the car barn located on the site rather than demolish it, and it planned to seek historical designation for the car barn, built in 1909. In response, Foulger-Pratt proposed to raze only the rear of the structure and renovate the front. According to the application submitted to the District of Columbia Office of Planning, the ground floor would have had retail and parking; the upper floors would have had around 400 residential apartments, up to eight percent of which will be reserved as affordable; and the basement would have had a parking garage. A portion of the car barn would have been retained. According to the plan, breaking ground was anticipated in summer of 2010, but the plans ultimately fell through.
In November 2010, Walmart announced interest in opening a store at the location by 2012. Walmart said building a store on the site would not require a hearing before the Zoning Commission, nor any input from any advisory neighborhood commission. Some neighborhood residents were opposed to the Walmart. The entire site, including the car barn, was demolished in March 2012. Walmart commenced operations in December 2013.