Urban Renewal in Southwest DC

We can learn a lot from the history of DC, which is both familiar to and unique from the histories of other cities. A prime example of this is the wave of federally-initiated urban ‘renewal’ policies in the mid-20th century. These policies were implemented in many US cities, but only in DC was there no local elected government to fight the renewal of Southwest DC, because DC had no local elected government from 1873-1973. This is the story of what happened to Southwest DC, which makes it clear that urban renewal is not just an urban policy issue – it is a civil rights issue.

This is what Southwest DC looked like in 1939:

1939-southwest-dc

It was a neighborhood of leafy streets and row houses, not too different from Capitol Hill or Georgetown, in very close proximity to the National Mall and the Capitol. As it turned out, that became part of the problem for Southwest DC – it happened to also be predominantly black and poor, which was largely the result of formal and informal segregation efforts across the city (a great visual history of which has been created by Prologue DC). These segregated neighborhoods were created by a range of measures such as restrictive covenants and redlining, much of which was legal until a 1948 Supreme Court decision and, later, the 1968 Civil Rights Act. As a result of these and others elements of systematic discrimination, the neighborhood’s poverty was visible: almost half of the houses in Southwest DC in the 1940s had outdoor toilets and one fifth lacked electricity (Gale 1987). Federal policymakers and photographers took note, the latter of which especially liked the juxtaposition of poverty and the Capitol building:

The narratives in these pictures (from the LOC) are clear: this neighborhood is both poor and black. But these photographs don’t capture the whole story: take a look at this photo of a streetscape in southwest DC taken in 1950:

1950-street-scene-sw-dc

There are two narratives that these pictures tell: one is that this neighborhood is impoverished and dilapidated, and the second is that this is a community in a neighborhood not too dissimilar from other historic neighborhoods in DC. These narratives mirror the two major arguments about what to do about Southwest DC at the time. One argument was in favor of rehabilitating housing in the quadrant in order to alleviate poverty without displacing the residents. Another argument painted Southwest DC as a slum as a way to justify its demolition (Gillette 1995). This picture shows what happened:

1959-aerial-view-demolished-sw-dc

Wholesale demolition won out, 99% of the neighborhood’s buildings were demolished, and over 20,000 people – almost 80% of whom were black – were displaced (Jaffe & Sherwood 2014). As shown in the street maps below (from USGS), the traditional block pattern of the neighborhoods of Southwest DC gave way to a much different style, with bigger blocks, large agency buildings, and the Southeast Freeway:

sw-dc-1956-and-1971

Southwest DC in 1956 and 1971

This wasn’t the first forced displacement in DC’s history – as the blog Whose Downtown? points out, this renewal project was a continuation of alley dwelling removals in the decades prior – and the federal government didn’t intend for it to be the last. Not long after Southwest DC was demolished, an urban renewal area was created for the Shaw neighborhood, which was also predominantly black and also a site for a proposed urban highway. Having witnessed the effects of Southwest DC’s renewal firsthand, a coalition of churches, non-profits, and advocates – led in part by civil rights activist Rev. Walter Fauntroy – defeated these plans (Ruble 2012).

It was too late, however, for Southwest DC. Where there were once row houses, there was now brutalist architecture, cement parks, and buildings isolated from their surroundings by design – and by parking lots (here’s a slideshow). From the perspective of many intelligent, well-meaning policymakers, architects, and planners, this was a success of urban design. From a civil rights perspective, this was forced displacement and demolition of a predominantly black neighborhood, and only served to harm the neighborhood’s residents and exacerbate poverty.

Such destructive urban renewal projects are uncommon today, and the federal government has changed their approach and even tried to repair the effects of urban renewal – but there are still challenges for equity in urban housing and transportation policy. What the history of Southwest DC and Shaw teaches us is that those challenges cannot be solved from one perspective exclusively, but from a diversity of perspectives befitting the complexity of these challenges.


Riordan Frost is a PhD candidate in Public Administration at American University, and an avid fan of maps, history, and urban sustainability. You can see his current projects at riordanfrost.com.