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DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.


The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.


Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.


An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.


This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.

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You've never seen my byline before, but I serve on the GGWash Board of Directors, where I add my expertise in fundraising and nonprofit management to the organization's mix of leadership. Long before I joined the board, though, I was a regular reader of the blog.

I found GGWash when I first moved to DC in 2008, eager to understand the place on a local level. I grew up in the outer suburbs, knowing little of the actual city outside of the National Mall and downtown office buildings. When I found some roommates on Craigslist and moved into a row house in Park View, I was curious to learn more.

GGWash's coverage of bike lane plans, street design, transportation, and city governance informed my understanding of what it is to live in an urban environment. And as DC has become my permanent home rather than a temporary place to live and work (that was the thought when I moved here, I admit), I have come to appreciate the organization's commitment to providing readers with the tools we need to take what we learn here and proactively engage with the city.

I've participated in forums as WMATA has examined the bus lines I take to work. I've attended my ANC meetings to get to know what local leaders are doing in my community. I've submitted comments to DDOT about pedestrian and cycling issues. And I'm keeping an eye on the development coming along Park View's stretch of Georgia Avenue, so that I can be an effective advocate for a walkable, inclusive, and growing neighborhood. Our coverage means I that I am aware that these opportunities exist, and informed enough to make productive comments.

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Links


Breakfast links: Streetcar starts soon?


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
Streetcar in February: Safety officials say final certification for the H Street Streetcar should come this month, and that further delay is "unlikely." The streetcar could start carrying passengers as soon as February 26. (WAMU)

Shake up at WMATA: Rob Troup, WMATA's top engineer and deputy general manager, resigned yesterday. The WMATA Board did not call for his resignation, but Troup often had to answer for Metro's ongoing safety and operational problems. (WAMU)

Progress for paid leave: DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson now supports the paid family leave proposal and says he would be willing to allow up to a 1% payroll tax to fund the program. Mayor Bowser remains opposed to the proposal. (Post)

Metro's close call: Last week's incident, where a Metro train operator ran a red light and came dangerously close to another train, occurred due to miscommunication between the train operator and a rail operations controller. Metro will now require supervisors to personally oversee unusual train redirections. (Post)

Tax relief for renters: If you rented in DC for all of 2015 and make less than $40,000, you're likely eligible for a tax credit. DC is reimbursing more tenants for some of the property taxes they effectively pay via rent. (Post)

Don't count on DCA: A member of Congress tried to expand National Airport's allowed service area to 1,425 miles so that he could get direct flights home. But local representatives Norton and Comstock pushed back, citing noise pollution and already exhausted airport capacity. (Post)

A bridge to Reston: An important pedestrian bridge near Reston Town Center has finally been repaired and reopened after several months of closure. The bridge suffered weather-related damage last year. (RestonNow)

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Development


Eckington is getting some much-needed retail

A new development in Eckington will bring housing and much-needed retail to the area, including businesses that are hyper-focused on the local economy. Some residents are being very vigilant to make sure the project benefits the neighborhood.


Eckington Yards overview. Image from The JBG Companies.

Called Eckington Yards, the project will facilitate a "maker economy" of businesses that keep things local, like breweries or coffee shops that roast their own beans on the premises.

"We try to think outside the box when we bring in new retail not just bringing in five or six restaurants," said Bryan Moll of the JBG Companies, the project's developer, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting earlier this month. "You're not just selling things, you're not just making things. You make it locally [and] you sell it locally,"

The maker retail component will line the interior corridor of Eckington Yards, which will be built on a three-acre site that stretches from Eckington Place NE to Harry Thomas Way NE between existing developments. The corridor will be a rough extension of Quincy Place NE.


Eckington Yards site. Image by Google Maps.

A coffee shop or small restaurant is likely at the corner of Quincy Place and Eckington Place.


The interior corridor of Eckington Yards. Image by JBG.

The additional retail will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Eckington lacks retail in its interior, something that the civic association says was done by design when the area was developed in the late 19th century. Today, the closest restaurants are in Bloomingdale, with a grocery store and pharmacy in NoMa.

Residents are circumspect

Eckington residents want guarantees from JBG and its partners that Eckington Yards will benefit the neighborhood. They point to the developer of the Gale Eckington, formerly Triolgy NoMa, and how they promised a dog park and some retail when it opened in 2012.

Today, only a small corner on Harry Thomas Way—the furthest point of the Gale from the center of Eckington—is a dog park and there is no retail.


The small dog park at the Gale. Image from Google Maps.

"Our goal is to activate the space," said Moll on the retail component of Eckington Yards. JBG promises to keep its commitments to the neighborhood, he added, pointing to a binding community benefits agreement they plan to sign with the civic association.

A draft copy of the agreement includes ensuring that the maker retail is viable in the development, investing in a new or expanded Capital Bikeshare station, and planting trees and in and round the site.

The project is light on affordable housing

Eckington Yards is slated to have 695 residential units in four new buildings, said Moll. Only 8% of these, or about 55 units, will be included in DC's inclusionary housing program, he said.

Built on private land, JBG and its partners are not bound to the public land-deal requirement that 20% to 30% of residential units be included in the affordable housing programme.

Of the 55 affordable units, 20% will be set aside for households of four that make up to 50% of area median income (AMI)—about $50,000—and the remaining 80% for households that make 80% of AMI, said Moll.

Not all of the units in Eckington Yards will be rental. JBG plans to initially put units in only one of the four buildings up for rent with the rest condo but, Moll said, they convert another building into rental units depending on demand.

JBG will include both rental and for sale units in the affordable component of Eckington Yards.

The developer plans to seek approval for Eckington Yards from the DC zoning commission in May with construction beginning around the middle of 2017 and opening by the middle of 2019, said Moll.

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Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 77

On Tuesday, we posted our seventy-seventh photo challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 18 guesses. Only three got all five. Great work, AlexC, Stephen C, and We Will Crush Peter K!


Image 1: Wiehle Avenue

The first image shows the bus loop entrance at Wiehle Avenue's northern entrance. The greenhouse-like glass structure is a unique architectural feature in the system, unique even among its sister Silver Line stations. We've featured it before in week 21.

Ten knew this one.


Image 2: West Hyattsville

The second image shows the southbound platform at West Hyattsville from one of Metro's new trains (on its first day on the Green Line). The three distinguishing attributes here are the side platforms, the fence, and the roof over the escalator bank.

Side platforms, especially at outdoor stations, are very rare, which narrows the possibilities. This fence is unique and distinctive (and was featured in week 70). One final clue is the escalator canopy, visible at far left.

Fifteen got this one right.


Image 3: Cleveland Park

This picture shows the pair of street entrances to Cleveland Park station stradling Connecticut Avenue. Cleveland Park station, like its neighbors to the north, Van Ness and Tenleytown, has entrances on either side of the street. But unlike at Van Ness, where they both face north, at Cleveland Park, one faces north and the other faces south. This is the only place with that arrangement.

The retail corridor here is also very distinctive, and if you've used the station, you might have recognized some of the buildings. Seventeen were correct.


Image 4: White Flint

The fourth photo shows the underpass below Route 355 at White Flint station. The opposite direction-facing escalator canopies should have helped you narrow this down, as it's a fairly rare arrangement. The actual station entrance is visible at center left. Other clues include the stone wall median on Marinelli Street and a barely-visible Maryland highway sign behind one of the escalator canopy supports.

Fourteen guessed the right answer.


Image 5: Metro Center

The last image proved to be quite hard—harder than I anticipated. However, it should have been possible to deduce as Metro Center given the information provided.

The most distinctive element shown in the picture is the "thanks for riding Metro" sign, which is present in only a few major "gateway" stations. In this case, the sign sits above the 12th and G entrance to the station.

As Peter K noted in his comments, the wall here is without coffer tiles and much more vertical than you'd normally see from a mezzanine. That's because the vault is taller at Metro Center and also because this entrance is at the same level as the Red Line (it's accessed from the Shady Grove platform), as opposed to being one level up, as the 11th and G and 13th and G entrances are, above the Red Line.

The signage also indicates an elevator to street, and given the attributes described in the paragraph above, this has to be a station where the elevator comes straight to the platform, without stopping at a mezzanine (otherwise, the vault would be more horizontal). Rosslyn and Pentagon meet that criteria, but don't have this signage. Wheaton and Forest Glen also have direct platform-to-street elevators, but aren't "waffle" style.

That leaves the three downtown transfer stations. L'Enfant is out because the street elevator lands at the 7th and Maryland mezzanine above the Green/Yellow Line. That leaves a tough choice between Gallery Place and Metro Center. At Gallery Place, the street elevator (actually a pair of them) land at their own fare control area in an alcove off the Glenmont platform. The entry, though, is not as wide as the featured entrance here.

At Metro Center, the street elevator shares this opening with a pair of escalators and a staircase leading to the northeast corner of 12th & G NW, very nearly atop the center of the crossvault (which is under the intersection itself).

Kudos to the six people who correctly deduced that this was Metro Center. Great work, Eric P, AlexC, Paul in SS, Stephen C, and We Will Crush Peter K!

Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with our next quiz.

The whichWMATA quiz generally runs on the second and fourth weeks of the month, with quizzes on Tuesdays and answers on Thursdays. Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

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History


DC once had its own Arc de Triomphe

Paris's Arc de Triomphe is world famous, but did you know DC once had its own version?


Photo from the DC Public Library.

The Washington, DC Victory Arch sat on Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW.

It was a temporary structure built to commemorate the end of World War I. This photo, from 1919, shows the US Army on parade following the end of the war. Presumably the arch was made of plaster, like the White City of Chicago, and thus never intended to be permanent.

Here's another view, showing the arch from ground level.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Development


Old gas station, or new urban place?

Gas stations are slowly becoming a thing of the past, but properties with abandoned stations can become vibrant community spaces. Transforming gas stations can add density, encourage foot traffic, and bring economic activity to neighborhoods.


Gan Shan Station. Photo by Gan Shan Station on Instagram.

According to the US Census Bureau, the number of stations declined by more than 12,000 over the last 15 years. Often on prominent street corners so they're visible from multiple angles, and many times connected to more than just one street, gas stations are properties that hold a lot of value for developers and businesses.

The reuse of old stations started to grow in 2002, when Congress authorized the EPA to use its brownfield funding for cleanup of properties with low risk underground storage tanks (for fuel).

Here are some great repurposed gas stations

In Adams Morgan, Richmond, Asheville, and Jacksonville, former gas stations are now restaurants, coffee shops, or mixed-use developments.

In Adams Morgan, an Exxon gas station was demolished and will soon be home to The Adamo, a four-story building with residential and commercial uses. Prior to construction, gasoline, diesel, and heating oil tanks had to be removed.


Rendering of 1827 Adams Mill Road. All media from PGN Architects.

In Jacksonville, FL, a prominent corner in the Avondale neighborhood went from Shell gas station to a new-concept Mellow Mushroom. The restaurant fronts the street, abutting the sidewalk and making the place more pedestrian-friendly (as opposed to a gas station placed several feet from the road).


The Mellow Mushroom in Jacksonville's Avondale Neighborhood. The building is on a lot that was formerly a Shell gas station. Photo by amateurphotographybymichel.

In Richmond, Lamplighter Coffee's Addison Street location is a repurposed gas station. The station's former canopy now protects patrons on the patio.


Lamplighter Coffee. Photo by Lamplighter Coffee on Instagram.

Asheville's Gan Shan Station even incorporates its former use into the restaurant's name. The East Asian-inspired eatery's conversion from a Gulf gas station can be viewed on its website.

Each of these projects turned eyesores into places that encourage people to visit via all forms of transportation.

There are environmental concerns

Even though they hold great potential, properties that used to house gas stations can be environmentally hazardous. Former gas stations are often classified as petroleum brownfields-land contaminated with petroleum because of underground storage tanks. The effects of these tanks vary, from minimal contamination and simple removal to costly clean-ups, but either way, converting the land is not a seamless process.

Also, the cost associated with the removing the tanks can harm redevelopment efforts, and the permitting process can lengthen the project's timeline and create uncertainty. The EPA's Brownfields program has an extensive list of resources on funding and best practices.

In our region, former gas stations offer opportunities to increase the available housing stock, aesthetically improve a neighborhood, and add economic activity without significant additional investment in transportation and infrastructure improvements.

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Links


Breakfast links: Not about the money


Photo by Jonathon Colman on Flickr.
Purple waits on state: The Federal Transit Administration is ready to give the Purple line more than expected - $125 million in next year's budget plan - but Maryland can't get the money until it finalizes the rest of the project's funding first. (Post)

DC taxi app: DC finally has an app for taxis that works similarly to other ride-hailing companies' apps. The DC Taxicab Commission invested almost $500 million thousand in the app to be more competitive with companies like Uber and Lyft. (Post)

Reasons behind ridership drop: Metro ridership dropped to 2004 levels last year. What's the culprit? Metro believes the drop in rail reliability after the Silver Line opened, weather, the transformer fire, and free student rides are to blame. (City Paper)

More bad news for WMATA: WMATA took a $14 million hit over the course of Snowzilla, with $8 million lost in fares and $6 million spent in storm-related expenses. (Washingtonian)

Arena football in DC?: The owner of the Capitals and the Wizards wants to bring an arena football team to DC. Negotiations are underway to create a team that would play at the Verizon Center starting in 2017. (Post)

An idealistic budget: USDOT's 2017 budget plan is more transit-focused and less car-centric, but it stands little chance of actually passing in the current political climate. (CityLab)

A bridge for bikes: The Hatem Bridge, a toll road that spans the Susquehanna River in northeast Maryland, will open to cyclists this summer. The bridge will now provide a connection for major trails across the Northeast. (Post)

Less drastic on drones: The FAA has adjusted its ban on drones in the area around DC from a 30-mile to a 15-mile radius. Hobbyist parks that were forced to shutter when the 30-mile rule was enacted in December can now operate again. (Post)

Snowstorm slows housing market: For the first time in over a year, the DC regional housing market experienced drops in new contracts and new listings, mostly thanks to Snowzilla shutting the region down. (UrbanTurf)

Underneath the Capitol: Here's what it's like to take a ride on the US Capitol Subway System that connects the Senate and the Senate office buildings. (Untapped Cities)

The past is the future: Are historic preservation districts really so bad? Historic neighborhoods connect us to our past, and redevelopment of old industrial buildings can help address housing shortages. (CityLab)

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History


Modern Washingtonians have a mandate to remember black Georgetown

Most people know that Georgetown once had a large African American population that is, for the most part, not around anymore. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find that in the 1930s, Georgetown was the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process later known as gentrification. In fact, this process—and the role historic preservation played in it—is central to the history of the neighborhood and its current state.


Photo by the author.

Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it's true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought.

By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.

Displacement from Georgetown started with historic preservation

That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown. A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change.

The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy—one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation's capital—the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.

Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out.

This duality is on view when you consider the story of Pomander Walk in Georgetown. This is a tiny street lined with tinier houses. While some claim that they once housed slaves, they certainly did not since they were all built in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, house African American domestics and other laborers who worked in the houses and factories of Georgetown. (It was also originally called Bell's Court, after Alexander Graham Bell who lived nearby. At some point it was renamed Pomander Walk after a 1910 play of the same name by Louis Parker).

By 1940, the city had apparently used the Alley Dwelling Act to "improve" Bell's Court. In that year the President of the Georgetown Citizens Association (a predecessor to the Citizens Association of Georgetown) wrote to the city sanitary commission:

With many thanks I wish to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th relating to Bell Court [sic]. Of course we noticed the wonderful change [cessation of wood cutting and regular seven to eight day cleanings] that had been wrought in that alley, and for the first time in many months we felt that we could drive through the alley with a feeling of security. It is a long time since it has been as clean as it is now. I am sure that some of the people who live there will contribute their full share in keeping up the sweeping.
Clearly the residents were not sawing wood daily for their own amusement. This was their livelihood. They would walk the streets of Georgetown selling firewood to the residents, cutting the wood's length to fit the resident's fireplaces. Despite it being the resident's livelihood it didn't fit in with the idealized picture of what Georgetown was supposed to be. There's no room for grime in amber.

Georgetown's adopted policies that pushed black residents out

There are obvious racial dynamics to these changes. Reacting to the increased demand for housing, property owners of homes occupied by black residents hiked the rent or put it up for sale. Redlining prevented the black residents from being able to finance a purchase. In one case retold by a descendent, a family was kicked out of their flat at 1505 26th Street because they could not find a bank to provide a mortgage when it was put up for sale. When a grocer around the corner offered to lend = the money, the seller raised the price even more and eventually sold to an out-of-town buyer (who was presumably white).

This dynamic was put into overdrive by the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. It took the notion of preservation and improvement that had previously applied just to the alleys and applied it universally. This act is widely praised in Georgetown and serves as the heavy artillery for preservationists. You cannot even replace a window in Georgetown without the approval of the US Commission of Fine Arts, a body that spends most of its time evaluating the design of federal buildings and monuments or the nation's coinage.

The pressure exerted by this new mandate was simply too much for the remnants of Georgetown's African American community that still hung on in the 1950s. Even if they wanted to improve their home, the cost to do so consistent with historic preservation was too steep. Within a few decades the community—which was once more than 30% of the entire neighborhood and constituted the vast majority in smaller pockets like "Herring Hill" by Rock Creek—was gone.

This is the history of Georgetown

This is not a subset of the history of Georgetown. It is not an isolated facet of the history of Georgetown. It is the history of Georgetown. In order to save buildings and convert our neighborhood into the jeweled birdcage it is today, we ejected people, thousands of people. Everything we celebrate about the beauty of Georgetown today was inextricably linked with this expulsion.

This is not meant to be a rejection of Georgetown or the fruits of this preservation and improvement. But it is a call to acknowledge the dire cost that came with that, and to acknowledge that the cost was born by those least able to bear them.

It is obviously too late to undo this, but nonetheless our community does far too little to acknowledge the dreadful bargain that was struck at the dawn of modern Georgetown. In exchange for the permanent fixation of our physical form in a federal amber, we carved out parts that didn't fit the sanitized vision of a 19th century port town.

Remembrance is all we have left. And the remembrances of those who lived in Georgetown's black community when it still thrived should be preserved and cherished as much as the grand estates of Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. And we are lucky that many of those memories have already been recorded in the 1991 publication Black Georgetown Remembered. (It's from that book that I pulled the story about the family being priced out of 105 26th Street above).

The book is being republished to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication. In addition, a reunion/panel discussion will take place at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University on February 24th at 7:00 pm. Original contributors to the book, including ANC Commissioner Monica Roaché will be on hand to recollect their community's rich history. I encourage all to come.

Preserving memories is significantly more difficult than preserving structures. But the mandate is all the same.

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Roads


I-66 widening will happen soon whether it makes sense or not

Virginia Governor McAuliffe announced today that I-66 will become one lane wider eastbound inside the Beltway, from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston. That changes previous plans to hold off on widening, to give transit and tolls a chance to ease congestion on their own.


Could only HOT lanes combined with transit and multimodal options have eased congestion on I-66? We'll never know. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

Until today, the plan was to allow single-occupancy vehicles to use I-66 in exchange for paying a toll, and to dedicate the toll revenue to transit and demand management. Then VDOT would study whether or not it was still necessary to widen the road.

However, Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly filed legislation to block that plan, and widen immediately instead.

The new compromise plan will immediately move forward with widening I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Toll Road to Fairfax Drive in Ballston. In exchange, Republican leaders will drop their opposition to the tolls and transit components.

One more compromise

McAullife's original tolling proposal had already been significantly compromised. His original plan called for tolls in both the peak and non-peak directions, and an immediate switch to HOV-3. Those proposals were axed months ago to appease Republican lawmakers outside the beltway.

What was theoretically finalized in late 2015 was converting the existing peak-direction HOV-2 lanes to HOT-2, an agreement to spend the majority of toll revenue on transit projects in the corridor, eliminating exemptions for hybrid cars, Dulles Airport traffic, and law-enforcement cars so that all single-driver cars had to pay the toll, and an agreement that Virginia would not widen I-66 without first studying the effects of the tolls and transit.

It's that final part, the agreement not to widen, that's now changing. The remainder of the 2015 deal, including tolling, dedicating most revenue to transit, and eliminating the various HOV exemptions, will continue.

Tolling is still expected to start in 2017, the same as the original timeline. It will take longer to build the new lane, but not much longer. The widening will likely be complete by late 2019, just prior to a planned sister project outside the beltway. The HOV-2 provisions will become HOV-3 both inside and outside the beltway in or around 2020.

The widening inside the beltway will cost $140 million.

This is a loss for Arlington, but there are silver linings

This new compromise is a blow to Arlington, which has long supported investments like transit, cycling, and transportation demand management as alternatives to widening I-66. It is also a blow to Virginia's move toward a more data-driven transportation decision-making process, as the lawmakers pushing for widening ignore data saying it's not necessary.

While Smart Growth advocates never like to see highways gets wider, there are some bright points in even this compromised proposal.

While induced demand causes most widened highways to fill back up with traffic quickly, I-66's tolls will adjust in price according to the level of congestion, which should fight that tendency. The widening will also require a thorough environmental review, giving the community a chance to discuss impacts to parks, trails, water quality, and more.

Crucial to the compromise is the fact that the majority of toll revenue will still be dedicated to transit and other multimodal improvements, and that HOV exemptions that currently make it easy for single-occupant cars to skirt the rules will be eliminated.

That said, serious concerns remain. The governor has stated that the $140 million is not being taken from any other project, but money doesn't just appear. Even if it hadn't been allocated to another project yet, it would have been eventually. What are we not getting because we're spending $140 million widening I-66?

McAuliffe's plan has been watered down several times already. Will Virginia stick to its guns now? Or will toll revenue eventually be stripped from transit? Will the planned move from HOT-2 to HOT-3 never materialize? Will tolls really follow the formula to rise with with traffic, or will political wrangling make tolls too cheap to be effective?

What do you think of the compromise? Is it better or worse than the status quo?

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