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Southwest Washington History



| The Little Island: Foundations of a Community | Commerce and Immigrant Gateway: An Economic and Cultural Power |

| Changing Realities and Unmet Expectations: Climax and Decline | Charting a New Course: Renewing an Urbanized Community |

| Urban Renewal: Building a Revitalized Community | Renewal's Results: Renewed Communities and Disparities | Phoenix Rising: A New Rebirth |


The Little Island: Foundations of a Community


Owing to its strategic location at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, Southwest Washington, DC has a long and storied history. The land, which was first populated by Native Americans including the Powhatan and Manahoc tribes, was mapped by English explorer John Smith in 1608, and first settled in the mid 1600s by George Thompson. Thomas Notley bought Thompson's land in what would become south Washington and subsequently bequeathed a portion of his land to Daniel Carroll. When the lands were determined to be part of the new federal district, Young and Carroll sold their lands to President George Washington "in consideration of the good benefits which we expect to derive from having the Federal City laid off from our lands," according to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Washington later appointed Carroll as one of the three Commissioners who would work with surveyor Pierre L'Enfant to plan and oversee development of the new federal district. L'Enfant designated Southwest as “a magnificent entranceway” to the city and site of a major military reservation. Land speculators and wealthy residents quickly started developing the area, particularly along the waterfront. Some of the 18th century outposts remain today, including Fort McNair, the Wheat Row residences and Thomas Law House.

(Civil War activity on the 6th Street Wharf, 1863. The Law House, then the Mount Vernon Hotel, flies the American flag.)






Southwest quickly became an important military outpost and commercial center. Most activities were oriented toward the Potomac River with wharves for freight shipping, passenger boats and ferries. In 1808, the Long Bridge was built, providing the city with rail access for the first time. Several years later, the existing Tiber and James Creeks were transformed into the Washington City Canal along Southwest's northern and eastern border, earning Southwest the nickname “Little Island”.

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Commerce and Immigrant Gateway: An Economic and Cultural Power

Over the next half-century, Southwest became a very diverse community. The Potomac River waterfront featured a thriving commercial district with grocery stores, shops, a movie theater, as well as a few large and elaborate houses. In 1826, the Washington D.C. Arsenal Penitentiary was established at Fort McNair. It later became the site of the Lincoln conspirators' hanging and gravesite.

From the mid-1800s through the turn of the century, this community offered work and shelter for freed slaves as well as for European immigrants. For decades, African Americans, Italian immigrants, Eastern European Jews, and others worked side by side in this working class neighborhood, rich in cultural traditions. Much of the community's life was centered on religious establishments including St. Dominic's Church (insert picture) and Friendship Baptist Church, both of which still exist. During this time, Southwest was understood to have more churches per capita than any other portion of the city. Childhood home of American musical start Marvin Gaye, Southwest also nurtured musical talent.

Ideally-situated to provide military and industrial support, the economy continued to bustle throughout the Civil War. In 1918, makeshift shanties were replaced by the Municipal Fish Market (which would later become the Maine Avenue Fish Market).

During the middle of the 19th century, the perception of Southwest began to change. The area's transportation assets—initially a blessing to Southwest—become more of a curse. While the railroad provided a vital link for the city, it presented problems for Southwest as illustrated in the following account:

In 1857 the steam railroad invaded the Southwest and laid its tracks. What the railroads did to this section of the city was "a-plenty," and the end is not yet! It was an evil day when the illegal occupation of its streets and reservations, by these railroads marred the civic beauty, messed up local transportation and appropriated some of its most beautiful streets and avenues for ill-looking viaducts, (The Sunny Southwest, Records of the Historical Society)

The Washington City Canal, which became an economic failure for its owners, fell into disuse and devolved into an open sewer until the 1870s when it was filled in. Isolated from the rest of the city less, wealthier Southwest citizens began to move away from the marshy Potomac River Bottoms toward higher-paying jobs and emerging settlements in higher (cooler) altitudes of northwest DC.

Meanwhile, Southwest was increasingly home to a diverse population of low-income newcomers tied the waterfront commerce. Beginning in the 1850s, the community was particularly beneficent, offering shelter for former U.S. slaves and European immigrants. Spearheaded by the efforts of Anthony Bowen who maintained a mission and day school, Southwest became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

A 1948 failed slave escape attempt in Southwest inflamed civil tensions throughout D.C. Hundreds of slaves staying throughout the city had planned to board the Pearl sea vessel at Southwest's Waterfront. However when the Pearl arrived in Southwest —according to a plan widely communicated among communities of blacks, it met an angry mob. Tensions boiled over into three days riots and disturbances in Nation's Capital, moving the nation toward the Civil War.

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Changing Realities and Unmet Expectations: Climax and Decline

Notwithstanding the income and racial diversity, Southwest remained a healthy community. Industrial uses lined the rail corridor and at scattered locations along Maine Avenue, while commercial uses were concentrated on Fourth Street, Seventh Street, and Maine Avenue. Southwest's employment opportunities ranged from wholesale food markets, restaurants, lumberyards, to the Capitol Transit Company's car barn and bus repair shop. Just outside Southwest thousands of jobs were available at Union Station, the Southeast Navy Yard, and numerous federal offices.

Newly created East and West Potomac Parks became popular recreational destinations for residents. Guidebooks of the day advertise the city's premier bathing beach, canoeing, aquaplaning, horseback riding, polo, golf courses, vegetable gardens, a Girl Scouts' tea room, and tourist cabins. Community institutions thrived. By 1905, Southwest's population had grown to a peak of 35,000. The years between 1895 and 1930 became known as the area's golden years.

(Shulman's Market at N and Union Street SW, Washington.)






But undercurrents brewed, Southwest increasingly struggled to adapt to demographic and economic changes affecting Southwest and beyond. As the nation matured, Washington's trade and commercial activity, particularly waterborne subsided in Southwest as it did in the nearby ports of Georgetown, Bladensburg, and Alexandria, largely replaced by government activities. And while the government would provide Southwest with a fruitful source of employment, federal installations increasingly encroached on Southwest's fragile communities. These federal enclaves, with limited residential dwellings or other activating uses visually and functionally separated the Southwest community from the upwardly mobile north. By the 1920s, conditions had noticeably declined.

Southwest's long-standing isolation and low-income settlements worsened in the 1940s when the nation-wide trend of white-flight, whereby white Americans fled urban conditions in favor of new suburban communities hit Washington. Increasingly isolated and marginalized, much of Southwest's economic and cultural diversity had dissipated by 1950. The standard of living deteriorated to a point wherein substantial amounts of people lived in alleys and gangs began to infiltrate the streets. In an attempt to forestall this decline, an evolving partnership of public health officials patched together funding from private investors and the federal Alley Dwelling Authority to construct a number of sanitary affordable housing complexes between 1897 and 1940. Unfortunately these developments, which were concentrated east of Delaware Avenue did not resolve structural economic issues and instead exacerbated the area's isolation.

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Charting a New Course: Renewing an Urbanized Community

In the 1950s, city leaders and government officials concluded that Southwest should be wholly redeveloped. Many reasons have been cited to explain the redevelopment decision. The Historical American Buildings Survey, a Library of Congress documentation initiative concluded that the “economic rationale” was one of the most significant factors, while the symbolism of being next to the Nation's Capital also played a key role.

In 1950, a seminal Redevelopment Land Authority survey documented that only 4% of Southwest's residential dwellings were in "good" conditions, while 40% were “obsolete” and 56% were “blighted”. By today's standards, Southwest might have been considered a working-class neighborhood. But Southwest was infamous for a substantial amount of alley dwellings including Dixon's Court, the city's largest and most ill-reputed alley. Among subordinate economic calculations, officials ultimately determined that the net revenue of city service expenditures less property tax revenues would be significantly higher if Southwest's strategically-located land was redeveloped.

Symbolically, officials from John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman to leading architects and planners believed land in the Nation's Capital, particularly that nearest the U.S. Capitol Building should reflect the nation's best architecture and living conditions. Moreover, they recognized that Southwest was well suited to redevelopment, given the particular dynamics of the Southwest community and the plethora of policy tools and oversight agencies in the Nation's Capital.

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Urban Renewal: Building a Revitalized Community

Southwest's mid-century urban renewal area generally encompassed the area south of Independence, east of South Capitol, and north of P Street. Although conceived as a unified set of plans, the process transpired from 1945-1974. Physical redevelopment commenced in 1952 with the redevelopment of the northwestern portion of Southwest, an area that would be anchored by the Capitol Park residential complex.

The entire redevelopment involved the demolition of approximately 4,800 structures. Approximately 1,500 businesses and 23,000 residents, or almost 6,000 households were displaced from 560 acres of land. Many of the demolitions proved controversial. Commercial owners along 4th Street filed a lawsuit that ultimately was considered by the Supreme Court. The case, Berman v. Parker turned out to be a landmark decision that validated government-lead urban renewal but also catalyzed the country's historic preservation movement. Some of the demolitions were welcomed by the neighborhood including the animal incineration plant at South Capitol and Eye Streets, which was replaced by a park. By the time Renewal was wrapped up, approximately 13,000 middle- and upper- class residents were living in approximately 5,800 new housing units.

Only a handful of structures were spared from demolition. These include four residential structures: the Thomas Law House, Duncanson-Cranch House, Wheat Row, and the Edward Simon Lewis House: the Law House was incorporated into Tiber Island residential complex, while the remaining structures were incorporated into Harbor Square residential complex. A handful of commercial structures were spared, but with the exception of the Fish Market, none of these buildings remain today. Friendship Baptist and St. Dominic's Roman Catholic churches were the only religious structures preserved.

Consistent with mid-century modernist ideals of architecture and urban form, new residences were arranged into a series of residential complexes consisting of townhouses arranged around residential-high rise towers. Groupings of these “tower in the garden” complexes were in turn conceived as communal residential squares, each anchored by a church and recreation space.

A Town Center, later known as Waterside Mall was built around the geographic center of the redevelopment. To make the suburban style shopping center possible, a segment of Fourth Street was closed. Four federal agencies – the Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Postal Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency established headquarters in Southwest, providing a substantial employment base. The dual-theater Arena Stage complex which became one of the nation's foremost regional performing arts organizations gave Southwest a cultural anchor. Two large city recreation complexes were added. Hawthorn, a new private high school was established in Southwest. Southwest's western end featured a dramatic public promenade, plaza, and revived waterfront anchored by the Maine Avenue Fish Market—which relocated a few blocks north. Automobile capacity was enhanced with the construction of an east-west highway and an upgraded South Capitol Street. Three Metrorail stations were planned but because of siting controversies north and south of the Waterfront Station, it didn't open until the 1990s.

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Renewal's Results: Renewed Communities and Disparities

As in any experiment, urban renewal's results were uneven. The program undoubtedly provided a jolt to Southwest. Between 1960 and 1970, the residential base nearly doubled—at least officially. Southwest regained a new image, both physically and socially. The area's worst housing – noticeably dilapidated wooden structures or the substandard dwellings lacking basic plumbing – no longer dragged down Southwest's image. Southwest was instead characterized by properties that won architectural awards, were trendsetting, or were otherwise remarkable. Once again middle and upper-class residents were drawn to the rechristened Island. Former Police Chief Charles Ramsey, U.S. Congressman John Conyers  former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Thurgood Marshal, and David Souter, and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey all claimed Southwest home after the Renewal.

While Renewal leaders could take credit for solving some long-standing challenges, others continued or newly emerged. Perhaps symbolic, was Renewal's affect on real and perceived barriers separating Southwest from the remaining city. While renewal strove to improve Southwest's connections to the larger city by removing a notorious alley slum in the northwest and assembling a grand promenade from the Mall to the Southwest Waterfront, I-395 and a grade-separated South Capitol Street presented new barriers on the north and eastern sides.

Within Southwest, demographic disparities increased, the office market flat-lined, and Renewal's retail components proved to be largely unsuccessful. Immediately before urban renewal, housing in the western and eastern portion of southwest was relatively similar (1960 Census). But by 1970, Census data indicated that urban renewal area (generally the area west of Delaware Avenue) had almost twice as many dwelling units, four times as many owner-occupied units, rents that were 2.5 times as high, and a household size of just 2/3rds compared to the remainder of the community. Pre-existing public housing properties on the eastern side intensified the disparity.

The Town Center gradually failed. A major factor was a shift in regional shopping and transportation patterns, reflecting a nationwide trend. Instead of a regional destination, the Town Center was marginalized. Although it proved to be popular neighborhood destination, that was an unsustainable proposition for the Mall's retail establishments. The exodus of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its 4,500 employees in the late 1990s turned out to be the Mall's death knell.

Southwest's other commercial and retail center, the 10th Street Mall/L'Enfant Plaza also failed to meet expectations. The promenade is a barren, windswept plaza, the underground retail portion suffers from turnover and vacancy, and the office space is undervalued considering its prime location. A number of factors contributed to its downturn over the past fifty years—and are instructive as the area is once again planned for redevelopment. Originally conceived as an upscale complex, financing proved difficult so the final plan was simplified. The elimination of the planned underground parking garage and visitor destination in the form of a national aquarium reduced the appeal of the site for non-residents. Although upgraded, the north-south connection remains physically tenuous. To the north, 10th Street is truncated at the Mall, to the south, a tremendous grade change and arterial (Maine Avenue) prove to be significant barriers, and a planned bridge over the Washington Channel modeled on Florence's Ponte Vecchio was never completed. Meanwhile residential Southwest remained anchored to the Fourth Street commercial area. Envisioned as a grand entrance to Southwest, the failure of the 10th Street Mall ultimately created another barrier to the old Island.

But to some extent, Renewal's shortcomings have less to do with what it removed or built and more to do with what it didn't. Southwest's pre-existing public housing complexes continued to have an effect on the safety and general image of the surrounding developments. Nearby industrial uses remained, including the D.C. Vehicle Inspection Station on M Street as well as the industrialized Buzzard Point and Capitol Riverfront areas. Reflecting the diminished value of railroad and waterborne commerce in the 20th Century, the values in these industrialized areas remained low. By the end of the century, a Pepco power plant, Coast Guard Headquarters, scrap yards, and some smaller industrial activities are what remains of Southwest's ‘working waterfront'.

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Phoenix Rising: A New Rebirth

Ultimately, by no means an unqualified success, urban renewal did effectively reinvigorate what was then a stagnating area. And while divisions to some extent persisted, Southwest is by some standards the most racially and economically diverse area in the city. The country's foremost political leaders and upper-class residents share the same streets with families in public housing dwellings. For decades, Southwest has been a desirable and extremely stable residential community, with 30-year residents not uncommon.

Perhaps as an indication of its success, the Southwest Urban Renewal project, a prototype for urban redevelopments across the nation has endured longer than many later redevelopment projects. It continues to be a regular topic of university history, architectural, and urban planning studios. More importantly, it recently engendered a new rebirth.

In the 2000s, Southwest's distinguished built environment, combined with its centralized location, and demographic changes spurred a new level of popular interest, civic energy, and private investment. Early trendsetters included H20, an enormously popular nightclub and a wave of new residents inspired by the location and architecture. Gradually, property owners began a number of apartment renovations and  condominium  conversions. Two mid-decade advances secured Southwest was once again at the vanguard of civic interest and development: the Nationals Major League Baseball Stadium, and the approval of redevelopment plans for Southwest's Town Center. More recently, the city announced several major investments in Southwest, including $200 million for the $2 billion Southwest Waterfront revitalization, the relocation of thousands of its employees to Southwest, and two planned streetcar lines.

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For more information on the future of Southwest see our Development Horizon.

For another perspective of how Southwest is adapting see this feature on a major infill development.

For more information on Southwest's history, refer to:

  1897 interactive map (includes early geographic and built features such as James Creek and ferry docks)

• Southwest: River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail

•  The Sunny Southwest: Records of the Columbia Historical Society

•  South and West of the Capitol Dome

•  Images of Washington: Southwest Washington DC

•  Southwest Washington, Urban Renewal Area

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