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Posts about Georgetown

Transit


Is a gondola across the Potomac realistic? We're about to find out.

Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We're about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.


Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here's what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID's 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there's a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It's ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.


Portland's gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don't know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system's ability to spur economic growth and development.
The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or "fatal flaws" that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

History


You know the Watergate, but what about the Water Gate?

You might know the Watergate as the famous hotel that Richard Nixon's henchmen broke into, and maybe you think of it anytime journalists default to adding "-gate" to a word associated with whatever modern day scandal they're reporting on. But they all get their name from a real Water Gate, an actual structure to hold back water. It's still here on the Georgetown Waterfront for anyone to see.


The tide lock with Water Gate ruins and the Watergate development in the background. Images by the author.

Built in the 1830s as an integral part of the C & O Canal, the Water Gate was a reinforced wooden dam at the mouth of Rock Creek that filled a basin with water so that the adjacent Tide Lock could be used to raise canal boats from the Potomac River into Rock Creek, and up to Lock 1 for their trip in the canal.

The basin's water level was maintained with a spillway at the top of the Water Gate, allowing excess flow into the Potomac River, while always maintaining a large amount of water to operate the Tide Lock so boats could navigate into Rock Creek Basin and up to Lock 1.


The tide lock looking out to Rosslyn skyline.

The canal quickly became obsolete in the early 20th century, no longer commercially viable due to competition from railroads and a growing roadway network. Commercial operations stopped in 1924. Without the revenue to make repairs, the canal and Water Gate slipped into disrepair over the next 30 years.

In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a walk along the entire 184.5 mile canal, calling to preserve it in response to the Washington Post supporting a plan to fill-in the canal and turn it into an automobile parkway—Douglas was the most notable local advocate, though many other local advocates were involved in this effort. The preservation efforts came to full fruition in 1971, when the C & O Canal and adjacent lands were designated as a national park.


Water Gate ruins at the mouth of Rock Creek with spillway control screws still in place.

The physical work to maintain the canal is an ongoing effort. Though the Water Gate itself is now an industrial ruin, NPS and Georgetown Heritage recently announced the funding for reconstruction of Locks 3 and 4, and a planning effort and conditions assessment for other canal structures in Georgetown will commence later this year.

So the next time you see a scandal with "gate" lazily stapled to it, remember that it comes from a real place with its own very interesting history.


History


The story behind Georgetown's street grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it's the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way?

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town's early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the farthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges 280 pounds.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St./Falls St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn't filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington. What didn't survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown's streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

This post originally ran back in 2010, and was crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan. A recent visit to Georgetown inspired our staff editor to dig it back up!

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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Development


Big developments serve a huge need, but smaller ones help cities too

It's pretty common to see new buildings with hundreds of units going up across the region. But what about smaller buildings, going up one at a time? That kind of small scale development, also referred to as incremental development, is an important part of building a city.


Neighborhoods like Georgetown came about one building at a time. Photo by Norman Maddeaux on Flickr.

Think about your favorite neighborhood in DC. Maybe it's tree-lined Swann Street by Logan Circle, with it's multi-colored row homes, all similar but with details that make them special, like the flower plantings on each stoop. Or maybe it's Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown—a bustling neighborhood commercial street with café seating and colorful shop windows selling specialty wares.

These special places were not created all at once; they are the result of a buildings being built, changed, and rebuilt, which has resulted in a rich urban fabric that supports renters, owners, merchants and service providers.

Today, that process is much more rare, with whole new neighborhoods going up all at once. These projects are often quite successful, and address the need for increased housing and retail in DC. But when large companies are the only ones building in neighborhoods, would-be smaller developers are left out.

Why do we want to avoid that? Because when communities are built by the people who live there, then those people are engaged in the neighborhood. Incremental development brings more wealth into the community; the developers of small projects reap the benefits of property ownership, including income-producing properties and tax benefits. And since small developers are literally invested, they have a stake in the decisions of the community, and take part in decision-making and neighborhood advocacy.

Furthermore, the spaces created by incremental development—from pop-up food kiosks to retail under residential—are more conducive to small entrepreneurs who can't take on the high rents and long terms of new larger retail spaces. In the boom and bust cycle of real estate, communities that are built incrementally are more resilient.

Today, real estate financing, the development process, and housing demand favor larger projects. So even if you want to, say, build a small coffee shop on that vacant corner lot, or fill in a hole in a commercial corridor with a multi-use building, it can be challenging to get the resources and permits to do so.

For example, banks are hesitant to lend money to build project types that have not been proven to create a profit, especially in up and coming neighborhoods. And even if you get financing for a mixed residential/retail building, then your project could be stymied by parking requirements that were meant for larger residential projects. There are roadblocks and unforeseen issues every step of the way.

If smaller projects aren't part of the mix, neighborhoods might be less likely to get a fine-grained feel. Also, it can mean less space for small retail, and fewer business opportunities for people interested in building cities.

A new non-profit is trying to change this

The Incremental Development Alliance was created by small scale developers who had been overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to them seeking advice on how to build small, multi-unit buildings. Since the group's founding in 2015, the group has conducted over twenty workshops on this topic, and are the recipients of a Knight Foundation grant to encourage incremental development in Columbus, Georgia.

On May 13 and 14, one of the founders of IDA, John Anderson, will be in Silver Spring to run a workshop on developing small real estate projects. The Silver Spring Small Developer Boot Camp will begin with a networking on Friday at Fire Station 1, and run all day on Saturday at the Montgomery County Planning Department. Participants will learn about technical skills and resources to navigate development financing, zoning and entitlement, site selection and building design in order assemble small scale real estate deals.

Discounted pricing is available until this Friday, and registration is available online.

Transit


Who needs Metro? Duck Rapid Transit is the answer to the Blue Line crunch

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro's total shutdown earlier this month forced many people to travel by other means for the day. But maybe that's just the way things should be. All the time. It would be much cheaper to get around using existing water infrastructure if the region built Duck Rapid Transit (DuRT).


Concept rendering of a possible Washington-area DuRT line from the from the Institute for Tub and Duck Policy (ITDP). Base duck photo by Jonathan Chen.

DuRT would be perfect for the Washington region, especially the overburdened Blue Line. With minimal investment, passengers could ride aboard a high-speed fleet of DC Duck Tours' amphibious boat/bus vehicles, running primarily on the Potomac River but also on dedicated Duck Occupancy/Toll (DOT) lanes in both Virginia and DC. Travel times would be competitive with Metro.

"Why isn't now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in the Metro system?" asked Thomas O. T. B. Fired, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Any reasonable metric shows it's not a good form of transit compared to other ones."

If Fired had his way, he said he would close Metro. He was previously quoted by the Washington Post's Kendrick Bunkle saying he'd fill in the tunnels with dirt, but we now know Bunkle misheard him and he really meant DuRT.

Here's one possible transit line alignment, with stops at eight existing Metro stations: Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Pentagon, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, and U Street. A future stop could also be added at the Watergate complex.

The idea garners mixed reviews

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which spearheaded a study of a gondola from Rosslyn, is eager to see an analysis. "I just want a feasibility study of DuRT," said BID director Stone Jerlieb. However, some residents immediately inveigled against the idea on the local listserv. In response to counter-arguments that this is far in the future, local neighborhood curmudgeon, Ima Ghenstytt, said she had to be opposed "just to be sure."

It's also unclear if Georgetown could even get a DuRT stop, but the BID isn't worried. "The line for Georgetown Cupcake starts in Foggy Bottom, anyway," said Bill Footsfield, BID Coordination Coordinator.

In addition to new Duck Loops at each of the stations, the route would require the construction of ramps to connect dedicated lanes along existing roads like I-95, Virginia 110, and New Hampshire Avenue to waterways like Backlick Run, Cameron Run, and the Potomac River, including a funicular ramp near Key Bridge.

Local transportation innovator Gabe Gross also roundly applauded the idea, saying, "This is a bold step towards having fully accountable public-private partnerships operate all of America's transit. Also, having more transportation options improves the region's resilience in the face of imminent disasters, like floods and electrical cable insulation."

DC Ducks could receive the same fares and public subsidy levels that the Blue Line currently receives, but DuRT operating costs would be lower than Metrorail, since the vehicles can be powered primarily by stale bread crumbs.

The DC government actually considered DuRT under former DDOT head Tan "Danger" Lini. That concept would have further extended the line to Columbia Heights by making the Meridian Hill Park fountain into a log flume. But that plan foundered after the National Park Service told DC it would require a public EIS process that would conclude, at the earliest, on April 1, 2036.

Some park advocates also opposed the idea at the time. Referring to the alignment near the Watergate, Ivana Park, co-chair of the Committee to Re-Engineer Extant Plans (CREEP), said, "The 1930 landscape plan for this area does not show the canal being used for boat transportation, so this use would plainly violate the historic nature of the C&O National Historical Park."

Will people ride it?

A major criticism of DuRT nationwide is whether riding on a duck boat carries a stigma as compared to more upscale-seeming vehicles. For that reason, some cities have tried using swan boats instead.

Miami politicians recently asked to replace a duck project, long in planning, to swans. "People don't like to take ducks," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, "unless they have no alternative."

But proponents like Yorick Yoffe of Citylab argue that these are myths, and if a good-quality DuRT line were built, people would ride it.

The US has not successfully built a DuRT line without it devolving to a bathtub-sized project through "DuRTy Creep," but proponents hope a Backlick Run/Potomac River line could be the one that finally succeeds.

Development


Housing atop Georgetown's Safeway would have strengthened the neighborhood

Retail is struggling in upper Georgetown, and a big reason is because not all that many people live there. Safeway could have added housing when it redesigned its Wisconsin Avenue store, but says it didn't because doing so would have delayed building. That was a lost opportunity.


The Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Image from Google Maps.

Affectionately called the "Social Safeway" for its fame as a place for singles to meet, the Georgetown Safeway got a full makeover in 2010. The old version was a traditional grocery store with a big parking lot in the front, but the new one fronts the sidewalk and fills in the street. The company also added a strip of retail spaces below and adjacent to the grocery store.

The Safeway itself was obviously done well, as most people who used the old Social Safeway probably continue to use the new one. There are more grocery options across the city than there were 10 years ago, but for western Ward 2 and lower Ward 3, the Georgetown Safeway is still a solid option.

But the retail market around the Safeway has struggled. Noodles and Co. at Wisconsin and S closed after only a couple years, and the Roosters barbershop, tucked away in a poor location off Wisconsin, barely lasted a year. The northernmost street level space under the Safeway briefly had a Verizon store before it sat vacant for years. Other spaces in the older buildings between the Safeway and R Street have also been vacant for years.


Photo by the author.

If more people lived in upper Georgetown, more people would shop there

More residents in the immediate proximity would be a boon to businesses along this stretch of Wisconsin, including those in the Safeway properties (that's the grocery store building itself, plus all the buildings down to the Jos. A Bank just north of S).

Residential could have been part of the grocery store's development, but some zoning relief would have been necessary. The southern building (i.e. the old Noodles and the Jos. A Bank) is zoned C-2-A. That allows commercial and residential up to 50 feet tall, far more than the single story Safeway went with. The lot occupancy allowance, however, would have presented a problem: When you build commercial in C-2-A, you can use 100% of the lot (which the buildings now use), but you can only use 60% when you build residential.

The other buildings are zoned C-1. This doesn't allow residential at all except for group homes. It also only allows three story buildings.

Could Safeway have overcome these relatively minor difficulties? Probably. I asked Craig Muckle, a Safeway representative, whether the company considered building residential. He replied that generally Safeway doesn't reveal their internal considerations but that in this particular case a desire to rebuild the grocery store in "as short a time as possible" was a driving concern. He didn't mention it, but the saga of the Cathedral Commons redevelopment by Giant up Wisconsin Avenue probably weighed in on the decision.


Cathedral Commons. Image from Google Maps.

It's not the case the Safeway simply doesn't do residential development. The company proposed developing its Palisades location into a mixed-use project. Faced with community opposition, though, it dropped it and promptly put the property up for sale (although it doesn't appear to have found a buyer).

Safeway also redesigned its Petworth store, adding residential space to that property. It was even done by the same architect as the Social Safeway.


The Petworth Safeway has lots of housing on top. Image from Google Maps.

Whatever reason they had for not adding a residential component in Georgetown, Safeway missed an opportunity to bring a lot more economic stability to this forlorn section of Wisconsin Avenue.

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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