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Where on earth is Southwest?
Go ahead, try to find the most elusive of D.C.’s four quadrants. Just grab your handy map andOops! Even on paper, you get lost. All you can find is a tangle of highways and byways and railroad tracks, dead-end streets, and then all of a sudden an inlet and a river and bridges, and finally, Virginia. That was it. Southwest. You missed it.
In real life, it’s just as confusing. The rest of the city may be laid out on a grid, but Southwest is accessed only via a handful of techy, complicated routesby tunnel, overpass, bridge, and parkway. Spend enough time hunting for Southwest and you get the sense that maybe the neighborhood doesn’t quite want to be found.
What you’ll see if you do finally make it is a George Jetson landscape of sleek high-rises and modular row houses, of preplanned order and well-intentioned concrete. Just seven blocks from the Mall, it’s what the world would look like if Brezhnev had won the Cold War and then installed Martha Stewart as cultural commissar.
On one hand, it’s a brightly lit middle-class universe of ballfields and numbered parking spaces and the sound of happily buzzing lawnmowers. On the other, it’s got that spooky feeling of a place whose creators had a thing for bulldozers and a problem with people. It is its own cul-de-sac in a neighborhood close to the very heart of town.
And that’s just the way it was planned.
Between 1954 and 1958, upward of 90 percent of the quadrant’s buildings were bulldozed as part of the biggest urban renewal experiment in American history. On the ruins of old Southwestwhere some of the District’s worst slums, and some of its oldest communities, stood just 10 blocks from the Capitolplanners razed a landscape wholesale in order to erect the postwar vision of urban utopia. Promising residents a chance to move into a new racially and economically integrated future, they systematically rendered a blank canvas.
The vision had no room for such traditional D.C. notions as front porches, corner stores, or even corners, for that matter. In ’60s architecture-think, throwing up multiple housing units like so many Legos in the grass around a central shopping mall was the answer: Those old-fashioned stores where you knew the owner went the way of the wrecking ball. Likewise, the vision for New Southwest also didn’t have room for old Southwest’s neighborhood relationships and community memories. At least 23,000 people and 1,400 businesses were displaced to make way for Utopia, D.C.
It worked. After a fashion. For a time. In its own way.
In other words, it didn’t.
Like many of the perfectly ordered universes that were byproducts of Eisenhower-era urban planning, everything worked fine until human beings came into the picture. These days, it’s a neighborhood that’s secretly in trouble. Tomorrowland is in danger of being blindsided by tomorrow.
Beyond its chronic structural problemslike being fundamentally inhospitable to multikid familiesSouthwest’s immediate problem is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is about to leave its offices above Waterside Mall, which houses the neighborhood’s only shopping complex, major Metro station, and psychological heart.
The loss of 4,000 lunch-hour money-spenders could shutter the drab mall’s stores, leaving neighbors with nowhere to buy everything from doughnuts to prescriptions. It’s a prospect that could, overnight, turn quiet Southwest into a really unpleasant place to live.
“In my nightmare scenario,” explains former Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) President Marc Weiss, “if EPA leaves and nothing takes its place, all those stores close. It’d become a ghost town. Among other things, Metro ridership would fall dramatically, which would mean it would be unsafe and people would be afraid to go there. That would harm the rental housing all around, harm Arena Stage, and harm the psychology of the neighborhood.”
Elsewhere in town, busybodies invoke the good old days in figuring out how to rebuild communities and the traditions that made them nice places to live. But in Southwest, the good old days are buried not just beneath the passing years, but beneath many feet of concrete. Without the fundaments of the past to work with, they want to build the future.
Together with other neighbors, Weissan urban planning Ph.D. and a senior official at D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Developmentbegan last year to take a hard look at Southwest’s prospects. They decided, once again, to call in the experts.
Last time planners came to Southwest, they tried to take the citythat is, slums and crimeout of the quadrant. This time, they want to put the citynow signifying community and commerceback. Forty years and billions of dollars later, that means trying to re-create what they tore down. If they have their way, the hidden quadrant is about to get a lot easier to find.
On a chilly March morning, the people of Southwest, or at least the people who care enough to show up for a long meeting, gingerly file into the opulent Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building to talk about the future of urban renewal’s great experiment.
Though Rayburn is technically in Southwest, its imperial marble couldn’t be more different from the ultramodern concrete of New Southwest. And the neighborhood folks who file inclad this morning in the standard federal-retiree garb of corduroys and flannel shirtscouldn’t look more different from the folks they’ve come to hear: A dozen high-powered developers, architects, and thinkers who’ve been brought in by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to draw up a new program for Southwest’s future.
For the past week, the members of the panel have been walking Southwest’s streets, talking to its business owners, and interviewing its residents, including many of the people in this room.
Their conclusion, however, is a startling departure from everything New Southwesters have known their neighborhood to be. The tentative plan being sketched out by the ULI’s presenters would turn Water Street, currently a quiet stretch with hotels and parking located on a service road, into a strip with sidewalks, pedestrians, and shopping and dining on two sides of the street. It would re-connect the neighborhood to the D.C. grid, in the process ripping out some of the cul-de-sacs and dead ends that characterize Southwest’s current street map.
Finallyand most dramaticallyit would gut the mall entirely. The structure is currently a two-block behomoth that cuts off 4th Street between I and M Streets. They’d chop out its middle, reopening the street and putting up storefronts along it. The centerpiece of the old New Southwest would become just a few small pieces of the new New Southwest.
The woman behind me gasps at the rough drawings beamed from a slide projector onto the room’s screen: Quaint stores! Women pushing strollers along the sidewalk! Neighbors bumping into each other on the street! It’s everything folks these days think a city should beand everything Southwest’s ’50s planners, convinced that utopia lay in building Virginia without the bridges, did their best to do away with.
“We didn’t bring in the ULI panel with the express mandate [of bringing back the past],” says Weiss. “They came to those themselves, because times have changed.”
And, this morning, Southwestersthemselves children of an earlier planlove it. Neighborhood groups raised nearly $200,000 to bring in the panelists. Everybody wants to take credit. “There was so much energy in the room,” says 19-year resident Steven Huff. “On a Friday morning, more than 200 people packed this room. It was so unanimous. Everybody was so happy.”
It’s a sunny Monday afternoon, and Southwester Bob Hall is using his flex-time day to work outside in his front garden. He doesn’t actually have to be a green thumb the condo fees on his Capitol Park town house pay a gardener. The condo rules, of course, limit what he can do to the exterior of his house, like painting a weird color or, for that matter, growing tall weeds.
But Hall likes to putter around in the yard, and he ought to: Hall’s planning on being around in Southwest for quite a while. “These are the most undervalued houses in D.C.,” says Hall, who quips that his only worry is others’ getting wind of Southwest’s affordable middle-classiness.
The boosterism is hardly unusual. Middle-class Southwest is the land of the shiny, happy people. If the true sign of the urbanite is nonstop griping, New Southwest’s planners succeeded beyond their wildest dreams at instilling the suburban cheer of America at its wealthy mid-century apex. It’s a charming sort of cheer, but it seems as dated as the architecture.
“It’s quiet,” says neighbor Mercedes Beene. “I like the mix of people. It has kind of a semi-suburban feel: It’s kind of nestled awaypeople are shocked when they come over here because it’s quiet, it’s pretty, and there’s no through traffic. Yet we’re minutes away from the subway and buses and the Mall.”
“It’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s convenient, it’s economically and racially diverse, and it’s a neighborhood that gets along,” says fellow neighbor Andy Litsky. “The crime rate is lower than Georgetown.”
“It’s very safe, very pleasant, racially integrated, and quiet,” notes Weiss.
After a while, you wonder whether all the ebullient Southwesters are reading from the same booster script. Even before I start my interviews, folks interrupt me to make sure I’m not going to knock the quadrant.
They’re used to being tagged as condo-ensconced dweebs slumbering along in well-appointed crypts. But what they can’t abide is the misperception that because of its hidden-in-D.C. locale, some outsiders may think Southwest is a slum. They’d rather seem dull than dangerous.
“The image of Southwest has been that it has high crime,” says current SWNA President Margaret Feldman. “That is not true.”
At the Tiber Island co-op’s regular board meeting, I am sworn to secrecy. This is a private financial operation here, not something that’s open to the public. Noshing on sandwiches as the sun sets over the water just outside the window, the residents go on to discuss a handful of noncontroversial minutiae, andjust as the board members warnedI have to fight off sleep.
Yet this is as close as the quadrant comes to grass roots. At meetings, neighbors identify themselves by their condo development. Weiss says that after he bought his houseone of the few nondevelopment properties in Southwestneighbors “were always asking me what it’s a part of.”
Elsewhere in town, people evoke history when they talk about their neighborhoods. Here, history takes a back seat to investment and property values. Which explains why neighbors who are so happy about Tomorrowland are also working so hard to change it: They don’t want to wait until their investment takes a tumble. Southwest may not be particularly hospitable for social beings, but it needs a critical mass of them to function. If it were any more deserted, criminal elements might see opportunity in the ones who remain.
“People live in Southwest because they don’t want to be fucked with,” says Litsky. “This is our property, our major life investment. A lot of that energy is expended making sure it looks right, making sure it’s protected.”
Nothing ages faster than the future. Built on the rubble of a historic community, Southwest is now the city’s most dated neighborhood. Margaret Feldman describes the quadrant as “a museum of 1950s architecture.” Unfortunately, the ’50s weren’t exactly a golden era in American building design.
Historyrecently coined, to be sureabounds. Forget ritzy Capitol Hill and Georgetown: It’s Tomorrowland’s happy people whose neighborhood makes you step back in time. Southwest’s architecture took that short trip from modern to retro, an age of hi-fis and high hopes, back when people still thought they could build utopias. No wonder its civic boosters sound like municipal versions of the Stepford Wives after their evening cocktail.
Where the rest of D.C. has quasi-Victorian streetlights, Southwest is illuminated by Space Age orbs atop square concrete pylons. Apartment building lobbies elsewhere in town have a certain faded Gilded Age glory about them; Southwest’s condo lobbies feel like 707-era airport waiting lounges: Your Pan-Am flight to Brasília leaves in 15 minutes, Mr. Bond. You can almost hear the bossa nova playing.
Forty years on, some of New Southwest’s innovations seem downright nutty. Laid out in an era when it was assumed everyone would have a car, the quadrant’s roads turn walking into a challenge. O Street ends in a cul-de-sac just shy of Delaware Avenue. After a few yards of grass and an inexplicable fence, it starts again. The rational city grid just wasn’t part of utopia’s plan.
And then there’s River Park, the Southwest co-op built with the sponsorship of Reynolds Metals Corp. Reynolds wanted to show off novel uses for aluminum. They were betting that the future would be housed in shiny metal. It wasn’t. But residents of the development’s shiny boxes still are. Southwest may have bulldozed its real history, but here, where no one’s looking, a slice of the Space Age lives on.
The most evocative perch in Southwest, though, is in an oval at the end of L’Enfant Plaza called Banneker Park. The park is a techie gem, marvelously whimsical and architecturally innovative. It looks like a giant Frisbee that’s been bent at the edges. From its use of public space to its choice of a namesake, it’s also a model of good intentions. And, this warm, sunny afternoon, there’s nobody here.
Planners say the post-urban abandonment will be reversed with a handful of simple changes. A final draft of the ULI’s proposals is due out this month. Already, Weiss says, the city has appointed a task forceled by big-time developer Herbert Millerto make sure the plan gets done. Miller’s presence suggests that a lot of deep pockets see a big future in Southwesta big future involving tourist and suburban dollars. Instead of contenting itself with government GS-4s on lunch break, Miller’s Southwest might tap into D.C.’s other big revenue stream and get a piece of the action. (Several phone calls to Miller went unreturned.)
Another major long-term plan also calls for big changes in Southwest’s shape. The National Capital Planning Commission’s scheme for the next century calls for tearing down the Southwest Freeway, the elevated midcentury thoroughfare thatfor better and worseisolates the quadrant from the rest of D.C.
Both of the plans claim an identification with D.C.’s historic look. Of course, it’s too late to bring back the real old Southwest: When that neighborhood was bulldozed out of existence, many of its neighbors scattered to distant corners of town. The new plans would use conjured historic architecture to lure in the new generation that Tomorrowland seems unable to reach. “We wanted to plan now for an orderly transition,” explains Weiss.
Unlike most of his neighbors, Keith Melder came to New Southwest looking for the past. A D.C. historian who had researched the old quadrant, he wanted to see what life inside the experiment felt like. Also unlike most of his neighbors, he hasn’t been too happy with the result.
Walking through the neighborhood, Melder points out the locations of some of old Southwest’s highlights. Where a bland condo courtyard sits today was once Dixon Court, one of D.C.’s most notorious slums. Urban pathology was erased by civic hygiene, which is a good thing. But the building that replaced Dixon Court is the equivalent of architectural Wite-Outa bad thing.
We soon stumble upon a sterile concrete plaza behind Waterside Mall that used to be the center of the 4th Street shopping strip, the heart of old Southwest that planners today want to put back in place. “It was low-scale,” explains Melder. “There were small enterprises and retail. All kinds of small storeshardware, grocery. It was the main street.”
It’s a pattern Melder will repeat again and again. As a historian, he’s trained to see ghosts. But Southwest is turned inward on itself in a way that often reveals neither the dead nor the living. “One of the flaws which was thought to be a great idea in the urban renewal plan is that it was cut up into these complexes which look internally. It shortchanges the overall sense of community….There’s a failure of community, and I think part of it has to do with how it’s designed.”
Melder says the quadrant’s privateness doesn’t stop with the condo associations. “There isn’t a single saloon in all of Southwest,” he says. (In fact, some of the seafood restaurants serve drinks, and Jenny’s Stage Lounge, inside Waterside Mall, is a bar, even if it resembles a bus-station waiting room.)
But some of those condos do actually have old Southwest’s history living in them. Staring out his window at the concrete and grass of the Tiber Island co-op, Joseph Owen Curtis sees sun shimmering off Washington Channel and planes gently gliding down toward National Airport. He’s just a few blocks from where he grew up, in an old-fashioned D.C. house off Delaware Avenue.
When Curtis moved back to Southwest a couple of decades ago, he had to learn a whole new geography. And that was the least of the differences. “In old Southwest, there was a different attitude,” he says. “They’d been there so long. It was a real community….I guess everyone wishes for the good old days when you could hang out on the street corners.”
Curtis is an anomaly. Most of the people in old Southwest never received the new homes they were promised: Renewal cut the quadrant’s population in half and particularly cut into its African-American population. Yet as I flip through his boxes of pictures of old Southwest, Curtis cuts short my wide-eyed liberal reporter’s romance for the quaint old neighborhood. “The corner stores couldn’t match the prices at Safeway or the drug store,” he barks.
What’s even more jarring about Curtis’ four boxes of old pictures is the kids. They’re all over the place: in storefronts, in front of movie theaters, in doorways, and on corners. The contrast with today’s Southwest is absolute. It’s late afternoon when I leave Curtis’ house, prime after-school time, and yet as I go down the elevator, exit the lobby, wind my way to M street, and trudge past the mall to the Metro, I don’t see a single child.
If you were looking from the right angle, you could probably see the bike riders in the mirrored tower of one of the Waterside complex high-rises. On a Wednesday afternoon, bikes rule the Greenleaf Gardens project, just a block away from the concrete and glass.
In the project along L Street, there are kids, and bikes, and yelps, and lifeeverything that’s missing by the waterfront. Two preteens wind close, trying to outdo each other in terms of who can ride a tighter circle. Down the block, in her own world, a much younger girl bikes alone along the curb.
Southwest’s public housing, too, exists in its own world. The grand plan for a renewed quadrant banked on the value of housing rich and poor close together, but the wallsphysical and metaphoricalexist anyway. Insofar as there is any neighborhood tension in the hidden quadrant, it exists between the integrated middle class of the condos and the poor of the projects.
Gwendolyn Stevenson grew up in the same Southwest that bred Joseph Curtis, in a house with no indoor plumbing. Like Curtisand unlike many other residents of old Southwestshe managed to come back to the old neighborhood. But these days, the view out her window in Greenleaf Gardens Extensions couldn’t be any more different from the sights seen from Curtis’ fifth-floor terrace in Tiber Island. This morning, Greenleaf’s courtyard has a dumpster and an abandoned couchand it’s also got all those kids.
“I love Southwest,” Stevenson says when I approach her on the street. “God knows I do.” The past year, in particular, has seen a sea change in Greenleaf, with major renovations leaving longtime residents like Stevenson much more upbeat about life. She’s particularly happy about a new ramp that lets her use her walker more easily to navigate from the street to her row-house doorway.
And yet Stevenson’s anxious about the future. Leaning up against her car and surveying the street scene, Stevenson looks like the kind of person who’d love walking down an old-fashioned main street, gossiping with passers-by. But the renovation plans make her squeamish. “You know they’re gonna make us pay,” she says. “Because they’re remodeling….I tell you the God’s honest truth: I think the whites want Southwest. I hope they don’t get itwe need someplace.”
Her suspicions are not without substance. Southwest’s poor got screwed last time urban experts set their minds on the quadrant. These dayswith talk of privatizing projects, developers running committees on the quadrant, and middle-class dreams of Starbucks pushing the process alongSouthwest’s non-
property-owning class has reason to believe it may happen again.
Another longtime public housing resident is more confident. The history of New Southwest, says Greenleaf Extensions Program Coordinator Bobbie McMahan, is a history held in common. And she suggests there will be room for everyone on the bandwagon to Southwest’s next incarnation.
“It’s not a matter of doing it because the government says you have to,” says McMahan. “Most people are doing it because they want tothey want to make the neighborhood more harmonious.”
But there’s only so much any conversationeven one aimed at rebuilding a neighborhoodcan do. Curtis says he remembers a time when both white and black communities had all sorts of people living on each block. Nowadays, with integrated middle-class condos existing in a separate world from housing projects, the ordinary connections are severed.
“In the old days,” he says, “when there were lots of people in the neighborhood, the kids’d see Dr. So-and-So or Lawyer So-and-So. Who will they identify with now?… Maybe if they had houses, it’d be different.”
In early February, about a week before the ULI’s experts come to town, a few hundred Southwest neighbors get together to talk plans.
One by one, longtime neighbors step up to talk about what they like in Southwest, and what they’d like to see different. It’s a touching scene. The average age of the room must be 60. A lot of these folks are from the first generation to move here, a generation lured by promises of racial integration and urban renewal. Nearly everyone professes to love Southwest, and nearly everyone’s love follows the same Great Society themes.
And then there’s a snag.
A couple of people who live in Southwest’s public housing projects stand up to say they feel left out of the process. “Most of the things that are going to come [to a reconfigured shopping area], we couldn’t afford,” says Burnetta Coles, who lives in the James Creek project. “It will not serve us. It will not help us.”
The response is immediate. She’s politely shushed in favor of a string of older folks who mouth a whole new series of great intentions. Everyone, it seems, wants to work toward building a nicer, more inclusive place. “I was brought up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a public housing project,” says one man. “I came to Southwest because it seemed to be a place where there was a concerted effort to bring people together of different races and classes. That goal has been an elusive one.”
But the real question hanging in the air, tonight and through all the discussions about Southwest’s past and Southwest’s future, is whether you can design and plan your way to a nobler world.
Le Eckles doubts it. A 30-year resident and former longtime advisory neighborhood commissioner who sounds as boosterish as any Southwester when raving about the quadrant’s beautiful river views, she tells me as we walk along the waterfront that Southwest will never become a pedestrian-friendly street-scale urban communitynot because of its design, but because of the people who tend to live there.
She says people who opt for condo isolation don’t want city life, no matter what sort of town center a new plan would bring. Since Southwest is almost entirely built out, and even the plan’s advocates admit it only tinkers at the edges, this effort will do little to turn it into a traditional urban neighborhood.
“It’s not in the nature of the people this was designed for to use public space,” says Eckles. “This is a street-unfriendly populationthey wouldn’t go up there if there were gold bricks for sale. They aren’t walkers. They aren’t minglers.”
Rather than taking up the challenge of what to do with an aging, commercially neglected population, Eckles thinks the current generation of planners just picked up on the current vogue in city design. “The real mischief in this ULI thing,” she tells me, “is that it’s the most hackneyed cliché in urban planning. It is the idea of the day. Every cliché was strung like a bead.”
Eckles’ effort to inject a little reality into all of the blue-sky chatter isn’t necessarily welcome. Earnest folks at the meeting jumped at those clichésas ultimately superficial as their results might be. Sitting in that room on the hill, I’ve jumped at them, too. Because after a few weeks bumming around the quadrant, I feel as schizophrenic as some neighbors. Never in a million years would I want to live in Southwest. And yet, maybe because I’m the child of Great Society parents, I find the quadrant’s touchy-feely intentions tough to dislike.
So what if people moved here to avoid the city? I want all of Southwest to have kids again, to have legends again, to make room for the ghosts of its paved-over past. It’s a long shot, but the gleaming new plans for the quadrant seeminadvertently, perhapsto make room for what was demolished.
They’re listening to Van Halen outside Captain White’s Seafood City on a sunny Friday afternoon. Of course, no one seems to noticethe crew is too busy shouting orders, weighing pounds of live crabs and dead fish, and serving up crabcake sandwiches to bother with the music. So are the staffs at the half-dozen other fish huts that make up Southwest’s fish market.
The market has somehow managed to escape the drab uniformity of its Southwest neighborhood. The smells are worse, the colors brighter, the people louder. It’s like every fish market in historynasty, stinky, and alive.
It’s the real deal here. There are off-duty Metrobus drivers waiting for their take-home fish and families digging into crabcakes. Clad in a Navy hat that reads “U.S.S. Redskins,” the manager at Captain White’s hands me a hot shrimp as I wait for my sandwich. At the next stall, a toddler recoils as a snapping crab falls off the counter and, for a second, looks as if it might crawl toward him.
As alien as it is from the rest of the neighborhood, the fish market is high on the list of positives for Southwest’s boosters. According to Eckles, it’s one of the few parts of Southwest whose survival will get the neighbors up in arms to defend it.
But the visionaries at the ULI talked up a cutesy shopping strip along this waterfront. Weiss explains that the panel interviewed some fish-market owners by telephone, and a draft of the report stresses the market’s importance, but some neighbors are worried. Andy Litsky says people tend to be afraid that “developers want to Baltimorize” the quadrant’s one Coney Island of noise and nonsense.
“Three of the ULI’s suggestions said to move the ‘festive uses’the always unspecified Baltimore Inner Harbor success story kind of things, and the cruise shipsto the ‘north end,’” says Eckles. “But there is no north end except for the fish market and one of the marinas. Even the marina can’t be used for too much because of the shallow water and the tides.” Eckles worries that the search for tourist-trinket profits will sink the century-old market.
I dodge traffic across Maine Avenue and eat my crabcake sandwich on a hillside. The view from here shrinks the fish market, which seems so all-encompassing when you’re standing there. In the distance I see Southwest’s condos, solid and gray against the twilight.
And, for a second, I see something else: the past. The fish market may be the farthest thing from the adjoining Space Age cityscape, but it is nonetheless Southwest’s own thing, something that was built up over time and not knocked down in the name of progress. No wonder the locals are so devoted to it. The neighborhood’s past lives in the middle of the smell and the mess and the mayhem of a fish market. For just a second, as I down my crabcake, I’ve found the hidden quadrant.CP