River Farms to Urban Towers
—Southwest Heritage Trail —
You are standing in the heart of one of Washington, DC's oldest—and newest—neighborhoods. For 150 years Southwest Washington was a working waterfront community. Then urban renewal changed the landscape forever. Today Southwest is a monument to 1950s and 1960s architecture and city planning.
The city's first military post (now Fort Lesley J. McNair) was established here in 1791 on Greenleaf's Point, where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet. In 1978 a ferry began running to Virginia from the point. Wharves received building materials and food for the new city, while shipyards thrived. The port was particularly busy during the Civil War.
By 1900 this bustling neighborhood was fully built, home to a densely populated working-class community of 35,000. They were modest people of all backgrounds: European immigrants, urban African Americans, and migrants from nearby rural areas.
Southwest was called "the island" because the Tiber and James creeks separated it from the rest of the city. Later a canal and railroad tracks reinforced the nickname. Homey and self-sufficient, Southwest aged in place. Its modest brick and wooden rowhouses, interspersed with some elegant dwellings and many alley homes, became run down. By the 1930s reformers called it obsolete, located "shamefully...
in the shadow of the Capitol." Consequently nearly all of Old Southwest—560 acres of buildings—disappeared between 1954 and 1960 for a new neighborhood free of what was then called urban blight. Southwest became an admired "new town in the city." But the forced dispersal of 23,500 people continues to raise important questions about the benefits of urban renewal.