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When Georgetown was on the wrong side of the creek

Ghosts of DC found a great map from the Library of Congress archives. It shows the property values of each block in DC in 1879.

Map from Library of Congress, via Ghosts of DC.

Matt Yglesias noticed and pointed out that it shows a time when Logan and Shaw were more expensive than Georgetown.

Actually, the blocks around Logan and the Shaw blocks to the east don't appear to have that much more of an concentration of darker blocks than Georgetown. But it is true that this map likely captures the moment when Georgetown slowly started to slip behind the rest of the city in terms of economic status.

This is a fact that many are familiar with. Starting in the late 19th century Georgetown became somewhat of an Irish and African-American slum (although sometimes this is a bit overstated). It's reputation grew as a rougher part of town through the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Georgetown became one of the first "gentrified" neighborhoods in DC when New Dealers swooped in and bought up the old houses. The rest is history.

While the early 20th century brought poverty to Georgetown, in 1879 it wasn't necessarily clear that that was the future. Georgetown had only just been an independent city eight years prior (actually it was briefly known as "West Washington" at this point). And the governor of DC (during its brief territorial status) Henry Cooke thought it wise to construct his grand Cooke's Row of Second Empire mansions in 1868.

Perhaps it was the Panic of 1879 (which hit Cooke personally due to his widespread real estate speculation) that started Georgetown's decline, but it is more likely the rise of the railroad and the related decline of the canal.

But looking at the map you can see that the biggest concentration of expensive real estate at this point was what is now considered downtown (and probably remains the most expensive land in DC). Soon after this map was created, the Kalorama neighborhood was created and attracted the wealthy. By the 1890s, Georgetowners worried about getting cut off from the happening parts of DC and lobbied to have the Dumbarton Bridge built.

If you were to draft this map again in the 1920s, the differences would be starker. With robber barons building gilded age palaces on Massachusetts Ave. Georgetown found itself on the wrong side of the creek.

One final note: As I said, the slum status of Georgetown in the 20th century is sometimes overstated. There were pockets of deep poverty, including the "Holy Hill" Irish neighborhood in west Georgetown, the "Herring Hill" African American neighborhood on the east side, and scattered decrepit alley dwellings in lower Georgetown.

But the grand estates of Georgetown were still around. Tudor Place, Evermay, Dumbarton Oaks, and Halcyon (not to mention scores of lesser grand homes) all coexisted with the slummier sections of Georgetown.

Of course even today, we have people living in structures built for animals right next to luxurious houses. But they paid millions of dollars for the privilege.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  


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Logan Circle...still hot!

by Michael on May 3, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

Total DC assesed value in 1878: 176 M.

Total DC assed value in 2012: 85 billion.

Return over 134 years: 4.5% eyeballing it? Of course DC is much larger than the city of Washington. Maybe 2 or 3 percent for the actual land in the map.

by charlie on May 3, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

Look how complete the grid in SW used to be, jeez.

Also Delaware Ave was like, actually an Ave.

by Nick on May 3, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

What was the star thing around Penn. Ave and 8th? Looks like it's where the Navy Memorial is now.

by Alan B. on May 3, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

I am noticing that Georgetown University was actually an off-the-map (suburban) location.

by Jasper on May 3, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

According to the key, the star at 8th and D is the "Centre of property." An odd thing to calculate if you ask me.

by crin on May 3, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

Georgetown clearly had more wealth as you climbed the hill and moved away from commercial and, esp. industrial areas, judging from the scale of the housing that has survived. Upper Georgetown probably contributed to the later development of Kalorama and Dupont as wealthy neighborhoods, as people sought conveninet new places to build.

Even after the advent of streetcars and streetcar suburbs, it was not unusual for people of different economic backgrounds to live near each other, although the wealthier folks probably had a coach to take them to work. The alley communities not far from Logan Circle would be another example of this and, in many cases, people would have worked as servants or tradespeople closeby. Racial segregation also had the ironic effect of enabling different economic groups to be close together, although other social norms would have prescribed and limited their social interactions.

by Rich on May 3, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

In 1860, 20 years before this map, there was little settlement past Massachusetts Avenue, and what there was was not connected to any sort of municipal utility. Georgetown in 1860 was over 100 years old what archaic water service they had was had out lived its useful life.

By 1880, the valuable land above Mass Ave was valuable because the city installed new water and sewer lines there. It was easy because settlement was sparse. Once installed, building boomed. Georgetown didn't receive.

Lesson: municipal investment in infrastructure creates value.

by crin on May 3, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

Thanks, crin. I thought that might be the case but that script is a bit hard to read for me. I guess that makes sense if you are just looking at the old boundaries for Washington. The current geographic center of DC would be near the white house.

by Alan B. on May 3, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

Actually not the current geographic center, but rather the earliest one. I suppose the current center would be like Bloomingdale.

by Alan B. on May 3, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

I also just noticed that in that map, NY Ave west of 17th street in NW actually exists. There is still a little chunk of it between 18th and 17th, but it used to go all the way to 23rd.

by Nick on May 3, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

L'Enfant's diagonals, like those in many other cities, have often fallen by the wayside, as car traffic tends to prefer to flow over the rectilinear grid. I would doubt that many of the ones shown on this map were necessarily improved very much, but they did exist.

The Navy Memorial & Archives replaced what was Center Market. Commercial space around there would have commanded a just premium.

by Payton on May 3, 2013 5:15 pm • linkreport

If they ever tear down, er, dig up/bury, the E Street Freeway it could be replaced by a re-opened New York Avenue connecting to the Roosevelt Bridge.

by Frank IBC on May 4, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

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