Posts about History
The rate of suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s and has declined by two-thirds since then, even through the giant housing boom. Could this quiet change in land use have caused many of the changes that we're seeing today, from recentralizing job growth to the decline in driving?
According to the USDA's 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as "smart growth" emerged onto the national scene. That's before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital.
It's been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). Interestingly, non-metro population growth (including distant exurbs beyond metro area boundaries) in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.
It's interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction, predated "peak car" by 10-15 years. The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti's Wall: the theory that people don't want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes.
Edge Cities, which relocated commercial uses into the inner suburbs, could only extend the outward trend so far; with a few notable examples, attempts at building Edge Cities in outer-ring suburbs has largely failed, since there's no meaningful centrality amidst the undifferentiated masses of one-acre lots. Second-generation Edge Cities rarely thrived, because without new beltways there just wasn't the population base to feed them.
To this day, 80% of the office market in metropolitan DC is within three miles of the Beltway, using Cassidy Turley's submarket definitions. Joel Garreau wrote that in the late 1980s, Til Hazel "had major projects at half the exits on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to...Manassas," but ultimately, that future didn't pan out.
Reston and Herndon, located 10 miles from the Beltway and 20 miles from the White House, are the notable exceptions that proves the rule. Fair Oaks and Gaithersburg, located 17 and 19 miles from downtown DC respectively, are doing just fine. But almost 35 years after their shopping malls opened, they're still ultimately peripheral locations relative to the metro area.
Even in metro Boston, which uniquely among Northeast metros actually built an outer beltway, 73% of the office market is within the urban core or inner ring, and the urban core commands per-foot prices more than twice as high.
If you consider that the area of a circle grows with the square of its radius, a slowdown in the areas developed for sprawl would imply a much steeper decrease in the radius of metro expansion. This could imply another overlooked factor in the slowdown in VMT growth, or vehicle miles traveled: since metro areas are no longer getting geometrically wider, thus distances between metro-area destinations are no longer growing as fast.
A majority of the VMT benefits from more-central locations come from the fact that destinations are closer and car trips are shorter; only a minority of the benefits come from a switch to other modes. As growth recentralizes, perhaps VMT can be expected to decline further.
A version of this post appeared on West North.
Many people are perplexed as to why Sam's Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is a historical landmark. While it may look like an ordinary strip mall, the Park & Shop was one of the first examples of retail architecture designed around the automobile.
The Park & Shop's parking lot made it the vanguard of modern design in 1931. Image from Architectural Record.
In the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip, which he derides as "Coney Island Architecture." He might as well have been describing the Connecticut Avenue service lane, which many neighbors are now trying to have removed.
It's easy to look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. Modernism and Le Corbusier often get blamed for the rise of the automobile during the 20th century, because its supporters posed it as the only way to solve urban issues like traffic and overcrowding.
But this magazine is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe.
If anything, Modernism was an attempt to create an aesthetic for the rationalist fixations of modern, 20th century society, like efficiency, objectivity, and hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls, like Country Club Plaza in Kansas City or Highland Park Village near Dallas, were executed in Colonial Revival styles. When you take the two ideologies apart, it's easier to see how parking fits in.
It's a complicated story, one that I don't really know much about. Luckily, a professor I knew in college, David Smiley, recently wrote a book about the development of the shopping mall, Pedestrian Modern. It discusses how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists' interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism rejected capitalism outright.
Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story. Architects were grasping how to design for a motoring consumer. They started by expanding the curbside into a parking lot:
A 1932 Architectural Record article on "neighborhood shopping centers" perhaps explains why shopping projects of the interwar period did not quite challenge the curbside paradigm. Buried in the "Drafting and Design Problems" section of the magazine were two juxtaposed images - a typical Main Street with "Coney Island Architecture" and a "planned grouping" of stores set back to make room for parked cars.The new parking configurations try to make sense of the flow of automobiles, paying particular attention to making parking easy for women. As the article points out, they did most of the shopping.
The former image implied congested conditions where parking was difficult, the building were "confused," and the street lacked design coherence. The latter image, by contrast, so that order, coordination, and "uniformity," and abundant parking were all evident. The shopping center shown was the 1930 Connecticut Avenue Park and Shop, in Washington, DC, which Knud Lönberg-Holm had lauded as utterly rational in his 1931 Record article on stores.
Set back from the road and making space for the then technological "fact" of the car, the center appeared to rationalize and make more efficient the elements of the new metropolis. Merchandizing was, in these terms, one among many social programs that could be made to function "better." …
Frey, Kocher, and Lönberg-Holm saw in this project a rational approach to the retailer's need to accommodate a new set of auto-borne customers - the shopper was a driver, not yet a pedestrian.
These represent ideal conditions to the author. Smiley also describes the efforts to retrofit existing cities:
In a process akin to urban bricolage, not yet urban renewal, they considered the turning radius of the car, raised platforms connecting older buildings, ramps or lots squeezed into unexpected places, new technologies, alleys remade into walkways - in sum, they attempted to reimagine the older fabric as an integral part of something new.Ultimately, these "expanded curbs" couldn't solve the parking problem. Designing for single-use convenience led naturally to the enclosed shopping mall. Everyone involved wanted to keep the "king's way" clear for the flow of automobiles and create comfortable places to stroll while shopping. The mess of a city street impeded this.
First they brought coherence, then centralization, then separation, and finally climate control, and now have the pedestrian-oriented shopping mall. All it took was making it impossible to walk when you're not in a mall.
Given the growth of internet shopping, how Cleveland Park's retail will cope remains an open question. But the history of designing for parking suggests that focusing on automobile access would harm what is so desirable in Cleveland Park, rather than save it.
Ghosts of DC posted an 1892 Map of Rural Anacostia earlier this week. I've made it into a graphic illustrating some of the other physical changes to the neighborhood and its surroundings in the last 120 years.
What first struck me about the map when I saw it was how close the banks of the Anacostia River were to the neighborhood. My knowledge of DC history is minimal, so I did not know that between 1882 and 1927 the tidal marshes along the edge of the Anacostia were filled in, creating what would today appear on a map as Poplar Point.
Clusters of single family homes were developed and remain intact in places such as north of today's Good Hope Road (in the Fairlawn neighborhood) and around Morris Road. In the next ring of development, south and east of here, small apartment buildings become the predominant land use. And over time (as early as 1900 with the development of the Nichols School, which is now the Thurgood Marshall Academy), larger footprint buildings sprouted up on and around today's Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road.
Future development plans suggest that the next phase of growth will follow a similar trajectory, with moderate densification of the main commercial corridors and substantial expansion into previously undeveloped land, in this case Poplar Point.
A version of this post originally ran at R. U. Seriousing Me?
I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.
Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.
Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:
None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.
So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.
Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.
All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.
But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?
In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.
But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.
So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.
A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
Today's push to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists mirrors the push a century ago for paved roads. Both ideas stated small but grew to become popular movements by increasing public awareness.
Over 100 years ago, maps of "Good Roads" led the push for paved roads by letting travelers know which roads were likely to be passable. In Slate magazine, Rebecca Onion recently posted an 1897 map of "Good Roads" in and around Philadelphia. Onion says that maps like these were a necessity in a time where standards on road quality and the funding for infrastructure was haphazard and sometimes non-existent.
Efforts like this are still happening today. While most of our roads and highways are now paved, many communities recognize that our streets need infrastructure upgrades in order to help more people feel safe while traveling on foot or by bike, as well as driving.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the "Good Roads" movement pushed governments to pave more roads to accommodate the newly-invented bicycle. Today, there is a push to create protected spaces for cyclists to use. Many cities are adopting "complete streets" policies that seek to standardize our street infrastructure and emphasize that roads are safe and accessible for all users whether they're on foot, riding a bike, or driving.
Like the "Good Roads" movements, maps are an important tool in advocating for complete streets. Both advocacy groups and local governments publish maps that show where the best routes to bike are. This isn't a new idea, either. Bicycle maps were being published in California as early as 1896.
In every debate over a new bike lane or changes to street parking, opponents sometimes argue that the status quo is fine and question why it should change. "Good Roads" maps show that our infrastructure is always changing, and the desire for better and more accommodating streets is nothing new.
Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.
Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!
Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.
Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.
Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.
Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:
Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.
This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:
The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.
I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."
This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.
Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.
So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.
Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.
Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.
Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.
The city's first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city's "smart set," who liked to go "slumming" in DC's small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.
Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn't serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.
But you couldn't find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.
It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. "Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s," notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.
It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player's Lounge.
Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.
Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.
The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.
The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.
But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.
I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.
The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."
Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.
Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."
You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.
In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."
On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"
I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.
Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.
I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.
"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.
"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."
After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.
Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.
WMATA's Metro Forward Facebook page has a fun set of Metrorail construction pictures, dating from the mid-1970s. They're a fascinating look back at a wholly different Washington.
The most interesting may be a 1974 picture of Gallery Place under construction. What's now the Verizon Center is a dirt patch and a collection of holes.
But my favorite is probably the one of Archives station in June, 1975, pictured above. In the picture, workers have yet to add the tracks, platforms, or mezzanines, so the vaulted ceiling runs uninterrupted for the entire length of the station. It looks so much more voluminous!
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
National Harbor was originally going to be called Port America, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.
By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.
The original plan for Port America dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor's waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now under-construction to become an outlet mall.
The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region's current tallest office building, Rosslyn's 384-foot 1812 North Moore.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
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