Now and a Long Time Ago: Cissel Alley

This week on Now and a Long Time Ago, GM heads down below the canal to Cecil Place, or how it used to be called, Cissel Alley. A reader directed GM to the great book “Neglected Neighbors: Stories of Life in the Allies, Tenements, and Shanties of the National Capital” written by Charles Frederick Weller in 1909. The book was the result of a methodical documentation of the meager living conditions of DC’s poorest residents just after the turn of the 20th century. The focus was primarily on the unsanitary conditions of these living quarters, but it captured the general squalor as well.

A whole section of the book is on Georgetown’s alley dwellings. And one of those was Cissel Alley. Cissel Alley took its name from the Cissel family that owned the flour mill at Potomac and Grace at the end of the 19th century. This is how Weller described the inhabitants of Georgetown from Cissel Alley over to 31st St.:

Below the Chesapeake and Potomac Canal and running south from Grace street between Thirty-second [Wisconsin Ave.] and Thirty-third [Potomac St.], is “Cecil Alley” or “Cissell Alley” whose ancient cobblestone pavement leads down a steep hill past a row of two-story-and-basement bricks inhabited by rather needy white families. Back of this row is “Cherry Hill” with its cluster of brick and wooden dwellings occupied by colored people. Further east, on Thirty-second street, Grace Church stands near the end of the uncouth little street which bears its name. Behind the church is “Brickyard Hill” where both white and colored people have lived for many years in a remarkable collection of insanitary houses. The first one noticed as the writer climbed up the clay bank above the alleyway, was a large, old. wooden tenement which was formerly a pretentious private mansion. Nearby there were, and are, some rough two-story, wooden dwellings of which one chiefly remembered the overflowing box toilets with extra pails of open, repulsive filth beside them. The old tenement seemed to be somewhat more dilapidated than the other houses and its conditions were so bad that it was finally demolished in November 1907. Within ten feet of this old building stood some of the wooden box toilets which served the outside houses fronting upon Thirty-first street. These brick houses, standing seven or eight feet below Brickyard Hill, must receive into their diminutive back yards a good deal of its unwholesome drainage. It was not until July 1908 that the owners were forced to install water closets in this Thirty-first street row, whose white tenants had long complained of their lack of water.

Here’s what Cissel/Cecil looks like today:

Besides the paved road and the new buildings to the left, the most striking change in the pictures is how the homes used to have second floor entrances. The photos are unclear whether the old entrances are the existing second floor windows, or if entrances have remained the same with regrading explaining the fact that they’re now at ground level. (GM guesses the later).

Where concerned government appointees like Weller once found squalor and open privies, now sit the same buildings worth over $600k.

1 Comment

Filed under Now and a Long Time Ago

One response to “Now and a Long Time Ago: Cissel Alley

  1. Michele Jacobson

    Great to see Cecil Place in the news. A few refinements, though. Cecil Place was officially opened as Cecil Alley on April 30, 1806, long before the Cissel family arrived in the area. It is speculated that the name derived from earlier inhabitants that came from Cecil County. Also, the entrances were indeed changed from the second to the first floor – probably in the 1940s. The grading in front of the Cecil Place homes has remained the same since they were built in 1890. In fact, in front of 1043 Cecil Place you can still see the tops of some of the granite stone curbs that are shown in the 1906 photo. And the cobblestones still sit just underneath the asphalt. Finally, Weller’s description of the working families on Cecil Alley as “rather needy white people” is not exactly the same as “squalor and open privies”, but it is true that had the politics of his day prevailed, the houses on Cecil Place would have been demolished and the Cherry Hill neighborhood wouldn’t be as it is today.
    Respectfully submitted, M. Jacobson

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