Where We Live: Southwest Waterfront

Photo courtesy of
‘The Forgotten City’
courtesy of ‘M.V. Jantzen’
Hello and welcome to another edition of Where We Live.  This week we’ll be checking out the smallest quadrant in the District, Southwest.  Can you imagine city planners essentially wiping out an entire neighborhood and starting from scratch?  Well, that’s what planners did to this area back in the 1950s.  Read on to hear how it happened, and what’s going on today in one of the most overlooked neighborhoods in the city.

History: The southwest quadrant was present in Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the city in 1791.  In 1793, the city’s first rowhouses were built at Wheat Row, and in 1796 the Thomas Law House was built for one of DC’s first investors (both structures remain to this day).  In 1815, the Washington City Canal was built and essentially cut off this part of the city from the rest of the District.  The area became home to many poorer residents and tenements, but the neighborhood was thriving with churches, synagogues, and shops.  Anthony Bowen made this area a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But by the 1950’s, planners working with Congress decided that the Southwest Waterfront area was the place to try out all these novel urban renewal concepts, so they declare eminent domain over virtually all of SW, wipe out nearly all of the houses and shops and churches in the area, and cause the displacement of nearly 30,000 people.  Planners then build a series of modernist residential and office buildings, cut through the area with freeways, and destroy nearly all urban character that was there to begin with.  The neighborhood businesses were replaced by various new buildings and the Waterside Mall (which was recently demolished), which included a Safeway and satellite EPA offices.  These businesses didn’t exactly create a vibrant urban neighborhood, so they’ve been torn down to create a clean slate for massive new redevelopment.

Neighborhood Character: Despite being wiped clean a generation ago, Southwest is now home to a thriving residential population.  Long-time resident Elizabeth (who has lived in the neighborhood since her parents brought her home from the hospital!) says the area “is like a little oasis in the middle of city”.  The urban renewal era has left the area with a distinct architectural character of modern design, with a few historic structures remaining, such as the Maine Avenue Fish Market.  Because of the proximity to downtown and the redevelopment near the baseball stadium, this area has been changing pretty rapidly in the past few years.  Today there’s a mix of residential units, office buildings closer to the Southwest Employment Area, and a growing number of restaurants.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the area is that it is unsafe, or that no one lives in Southwest.  Elizabeth says the area is a lot safer than it used to be, because it has been “growing more as a community.  SW as we know it is only really 50 or so years old– they tore down all the row houses and alley dwellings to build the neighborhoods that are there today.  I think it took a while for SW to get its bearings again as a community rather than just a place to live.”  Kimberly, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, says, “I live in a friendly, communal co-op.  We have many social functions, like  brunches, pool parties, book clubs, and happy hours that keep the community closely tied.  SW in general has a wonderful neighborhood atmosphere where people socialize and care about their surroundings.”

Photo courtesy of
‘Washington Marina’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Transportation: This area is possibly the most accessible in the District, with such close proximity to Metro, the airport, the water, the interstate, and the train.  In southwest, you’ve got four Metro lines and a VRE station coming together at L’Enfant Plaza, proximity (less than two miles) to the airport, marinas in the Washington Channel, and direct access to the SW Freeway/395.  The only missing mode of transportation is a monorail!  Not to mention that the area has 13 Zipcars, a growing number of bike lanes and bike routes, and strong bus access.  Small as it may be, southwest has access to more modes of transportation than any other neighborhood in the city.  Long-time resident Heather sums it up best: “Steps from the mall and river, great biking trails and running routes, max 10 minutes to the airport, and 4 Metro lines no more than a 7 minute walk away.”

What to See: There’s a lot to see in this little quadrant, and there’s so much more on the way.

Neighborhood Links: The area is home to some great blogs and news sites:

  • SWDC Blog is a go-to blog for neighborhood news and information on development in the area, and it includes a handy calendar of upcoming events in the area.
  • Southwest… The Little Quadrant that Could includes great information on development happening in the area, and keeps up-to-date with neighborhood news and events.
  • If you’re interested in all the development in the area, check out the Southwest-DC blog that tracks several redevelopment projects.
  • The Southwester is an old school newspaper that calls itself “the cement that binds this neighborhood”, and nearly every local resident I contacted said the same.

Why We Love Southwest Waterfront: This neighborhood is unlike any other in the city, in that it basically started from scratch just 50 years ago.  And every SW resident I’ve talked to absolutely loves it.  Long-time resident Claudia sums it up perfectly:

I’ve lived in the neighborhood 20 years and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.  You can walk to shopping, health clubs, the Southwest Waterfront, three Metro station, Nationals Stadium, and the National Mall. It’s ten minutes away from National Airport, the Capitol, the Pentagon, downtown, the Chinatown entertainment district, and more.  It’s so close to everything, but it’s a quiet, safe neighborhood with a real sense of community.

If I had to put my money on where the next Penn Quarter Success Story of the District would happen, it’s here in Southwest.  There are all the ingredients of successful redevelopment: the confluence of Metro lines, proximity to tourist attractions and the potential for new attractions, government support and funding (well, mostly), residents who care about their community, and a healthy proposed mix of uses.  But you don’t have to wait for the new development to come– spend a Saturday exploring what’s there now, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks to Heather, Elizabeth, Gwen, Kimberly, Monica, and Claudia for sharing your thoughts about your neighborhood!

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

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