25th and I St. NW
It is rare that an intersection of two residential streets produces a microcosm of the development of an entire city. The intersection of 25th and I streets, in the northwest quadrant of Washington DC, in the neighborhood of Foggy Bottom, is one of those uncommon intersections. To the casual observer, the neighborhood of Foggy Bottom is nothing but residential housing, the many buildings of GWU, the State Department headquarters, and upscale businesses like Sweet Green and Whole Foods. Within the neighborhood the corner of 25th and I is simply some beautiful townhouses.
An explorer who is willing to look beyond the houses and businesses will discover that an expansive and detailed history of Foggy Bottom, and DC, lies just beneath the freshly remodeled building exteriors. Foggy Bottom has undergone drastic shifts in its character in the last century, shifts that would conjure up very different images of the area depending on the year. Foggy Bottom is now is predominantly middle/upper class white, but was a black neighborhood in the late 1800’s and the first half of the 20th century, and before that was populated by working class Irish and German immigrants. Foggy Bottom, like many neighborhoods in DC, has undergone somewhat of an identity crisis in the last 100 years.
The root of this change is a process called gentrification, which is a constant phenomenon in the modern age, affecting many urban locales around the world, including DC. Zeitz (1977) describes the process as ‘rich, white, inhabitants move into poorer minority neighborhoods and kick out the natives, so to speak’. This description captures the basics of gentrification, although the process is not always as direct as Zeitz makes it out to be. Generally, the method of gentrification is modification of the rent costs in an area. To initiate the exodus of poorer residents, companies renovate buildings in the neighborhood, which increases property values as well as the rent. The previous residents usually cannot afford the higher rents, so they move to cheaper neighborhoods, and wealthier people buy the vacant properties and renovate them further, continuing the upward trend of costs. Renovation, such a seemingly innocuous and appealing undertaking, is to often the most effective method of gentrification.
Gentrification marks the history of 20th century Foggy Bottom. The intersection of 25th and I is a lens through which this process can be seen directly. 25th and I is an ordinary intersection, which is populated by high-value houses primarily owned by upper class white residents. This is due to a history of renovation. These lovely row houses were once rundown and overpopulated as recently as the 1950s. It was around this time that renovation began in earnest, and the new face of the neighborhood developed. This is shown in historical photographs. [FIG 6] The renovation didn’t only change the condition of the houses, but also the residential demographics. Most of the residents of this intersection were lower class, and Boyd’s Atlas (1932) [FIG 5] demonstrates this. For example, many of the heads of household in the Atlas are women, which indicates that they were unmarried, and possibly widows. At a time before the Equal Pay Act, a single working woman was likely poor, and their concentration at the intersection indicates the area’s low property values. Also, one of the buildings listed at the intersection is the Universal Holiness Church, which was most likely a church of the Pentecostal or Holiness movements. Churches of these movements were popular among the poor, and the presence of such a church is another indication that in 1931, this intersection was low-income.
Another artifact that displays the lower class and multicultural makeup of 25th & I is the Map of Washington Showing Locations of Fatal Cases of Lung Disease for the Year ending June 30th, 1890 [FIG 3]. This epidemiological map designates cases by race; “colored” people were designated blue, while white residents were designated red. There is a more even distribution of “colored” and white deaths in the area of 25th and I Street when compared to the other sections of Foggy Bottom. This shows the multi-racial component of this area compared to the rest of Foggy Bottom, which was generally racially segregated. Additionally, there were both “colored” and white deaths on the main street, referencing the black ownership of homes on the street. This fact, along with the high number of cases, likely due to poor sanitation systems, indicates the low property value and poverty of the area. “Colored” ownership of houses on the street is also unique to 25th & I; in other areas “colored” people lived in shanties in alleyways.
The area remained a predominately black around the turn of the 20th century. The 1940’s census data, [FIG 4] which is the most recent data that is available for public access, shows some interesting demographics of the area. The intersection of 25th and I and the surrounding areas were almost exclusively black, but one block up on K Street was entirely white. To be split so starkly was common at the time, as neighborhoods began to be more mixed but many were still uncomfortable comingling entirely. It also showed that many of the houses had three generations of families, and almost all able adults worked to support these overpopulated and less expensive houses, showing that the black neighborhoods were in fact poorer than their white counterparts.
While demographics certainly indicate poverty, an early, highly detailed map created by Adolph Sasche in 1883 [FIG 2] demonstrates the poor physical development of 25th & I. The intersection is surrounded by small trees, and dotted with 12-13 small shacks. These shacks are of a low quality, and they contrast with the sturdier, more elaborate houses that surround the area. In this and many other regards, the neighborhood surrounding this intersection is more developed and wealthier. This is further attested to by the Real Estate Directory of 1874, [FIG 1] which showed that most houses, at that time, were small wooden frame-houses valued much lower than other locations in the area. While the whole city was not developed, many black families were moving into DC after the Civil War, and the area around 25th and I was a popular destination for many of them, leading it to be named ‘Foggy Bottom’, intended as an insult.
As stated, renovation took place in the 1950s. The process generated a great deal of conflict, which is demonstrated in a Washington Post article from 1956 [FIG 7]. It covers the dispute between the Foggy Bottom Restoration Association and the Foggy Bottom Taxpayer’s Protective Association’s proposal to build a parking lot on 25th & I. This conflict was largely driven by the influx of new residents into the area. These new residents were generally of a higher socioeconomic class, and they funded the renovation of the properties. They renovated these homes “in the expectation that the area would remain entirely residential.” Intervention by private developers or the government to interfere with their adopted neighborhood was vigorously opposed. This episode sheds light on another aspect of the gentrification and redevelopment of Foggy Bottom, mainly the gap between different forces in redevelopment, namely large developers and new residents seeking an ideal, refurbished neighborhood.
By the end of the 1950s, however, after the neighborhood was renovated, the population was 67% white and upper-middle class. The demographic shift was quite rapid, and it undoubtedly caused a fair amount of tension, particularly racial tension, between old and new residents. The late 1950s were a hopeful time for race relations, however, and a 1959 article in the Foggy Bottom News illustrates this [FIG 8}. The article is about St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church, which is a historic feature of the area, having been established in 1867. Titled, “The Same in the Eyes of God: White and Colored Altar Boys find Equality at St. Stephen’s,” the article boasts that the altar boys at St. Stephen’s are racially integrated, and that the only thing that matters in selecting them is their ability. There is no hint of apologetics in this article, which would seem to indicate that the parishioners would approve of this integration. Amid the tensions of demographic shifts and gentrification, desires to try to bridge divides and show goodwill towards neighbors found at least some support.
25th and I, in Foggy Bottom, Washington DC, as can be seen by the exhibits in this page has a deeper history than the picturesque and historic row houses impart at first glance. The growth of DC and Foggy Bottom can be seen here, and the tides social change can be seen here. This intersection may not have the governmental character that is associated with “Washington DC,” but it still embodies the history of the city. Washington DC is not just where clerks live and work – it is an urban hub with a vibrant history and ever changing community, and that is precisely what 25th and I represents.