When Georgetown Found Itself on the Wrong Side of the Creek

Map from Library of Congress, courtesy of Ghosts of DC.

The fantastic Ghosts of DC blog found a great map from the Library of Congress archives. It shows the property values of each block in DC in 1879. Slate blogger Matt Yglesias noticed and pointed out that it shows a time when Logan and Shaw were more expensive than Georgetown.

Actually, the blocks around Logan and the Shaw blocks to the east don’t appear to have that much more of an concentration of darker blocks than Georgetown. But it is true that this map likely captures the moment when Georgetown slowly started to slip behind the rest of the city in terms of economic status.

This is a point GM has discussed many times before. Starting in the late 19th century Georgetown became somewhat of an Irish and African-American slum (although sometimes this is a bit overstated). It’s reputation grew as a rougher part of town through the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Georgetown became one of the first “gentrified” neighborhoods in DC when New Dealers swooped in and bought up the old houses. The rest is history.

While the early 20th century brought poverty to Georgetown, in 1879 it wasn’t necessarily clear that that was the future. Georgetown had only just been an independent city eight years prior (actually it was briefly known as “West Washington” at this point). And the governor of DC (during its brief territorial status) Henry Cooke thought it wise to construct his grand Cooke’s Row of Second Empire mansions in 1868. Perhaps it was the Panic of 1879 (which hit Cooke personally due to his widespread real estate speculation) that started Georgetown’s decline, but it is more likely the rise of the railroad and the related decline of the canal.

But looking at the map you can see that the biggest concentration of expensive real estate at this point was what is now considered downtown (and probably remains the most expensive land in DC). Soon after this map was created, the Kalorama neighborhood was created and attracted the wealthy. By the 1890s, Georgetowners worried about getting cut off from the happening parts of DC and lobbied to have the Dumbarton Bridge built.

If you were to draft this map again in the 1920s, the differences would be starker. With robber barons building gilded age palaces on Massachusetts Ave. Georgetown found itself on the wrong side of the creek.

One final note: As GM said, the slum status of Georgetown in the 20th century is sometimes overstated. There were pockets of deep poverty, including the “Holy Hill” Irish neighborhood in west Georgetown, the “Herring Hill” African American neighborhood on the east side, and scattered decrepit alley dwellings in lower Georgetown. But the grand estates of Georgetown were still around. Tudor Place, Evermay, Dumbarton Oaks, and Halcyon all coexisted with the slumier sections of Georgetown.

Of course even today, we have people living in structures built for animals right next to luxurious houses. But they paid millions of dollars for the privilege.

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