Where the Streets Had Old Names: Bell’s Court

For this edition of Where the Streets had Old Names, GM is going to explore both names of a tiny street. The story of those names and how they came about says a great deal about the history of 20th century Georgetown and the role of gentrification.

The street is now known as Pomander Walk. It’s really an alley, not a street, but it contains ten tiny rowhouses. They were built between 1889 and 1890 and like other alley dwellings, they were built to house domestic workers and other laborers. (Sometimes they are mistakenly described as former homes of enslaved people, but they were built decades after the end of slavery). In the case of this alley, the residents were primarily (if not exclusively) African American.

Despite the homes being so small (approximately 600 square feet each), they were originally split into two, with each floor hosting a different family. At the time of the 1900 Census, the enumerator counted twenty-seven people living in the seven homes he surveyed (GM’s not sure why three of the homes weren’t counted). All of them were black:

The alley was called Bell’s Court. It was named after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who lived around the corner on what’s now called Volta Place (here’s the story behind that name, by the way). Bell was a large property owner in Georgetown, however building records indicate that the alley was built by someone named F.P. Naylor. Naylor was likely part of the same Naylor family that gave its name to places all over the DC area (e.g. Naylor Road, Naylor Court).

Like most alley dwellings, the homes on Bell’s Court were pretty spare and lacked indoor plumbing or electricity long after that became common. And here’s where the Alley Dwelling Act comes in. This law, passed in 1934 during the New Deal, was adopted in response to the poverty present in alley dwellings around DC. It created the Alley Dwelling Authority, which had the power to condemn alley dwellings, force the residents to leave, and fund improvements to make the residences more modern and less crowded.

There are two ways to view this authority. On the one hand, it spurred the renovations and/or demolition of a lot of substandard housing. But, on the other hand, there were no measures put in place to ensure that the residents of the dwellings could come back to whatever was left after the authority’s actions. And, in fact, the property owners, having just received government-funded improvements, could turn around and rent the homes for a lot more money. Which they often did. The effect was to remove a great number of black residents from neighborhoods across the city. To many, as the saying goes, this was a feature of the Alley Dwelling Act, not a bug.

And that is exactly what happened at Bell’s Court. In the late 1940s, all the residents of Bell’s Court were evicted. The land owner renovated the housing (which still lacked plumbing and electricity at the time) but few if any of the old residents returned once the work was complete.

This dynamic was repeated throughout Georgetown (particularly in east Georgetown). Homes that housed black families were cleared out, improved, and then rented or sold to new, mostly white, families. The adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950 accelerated this dynamic, as a new historic-ish aesthetic became required by law. It’s a law cherished by those who claim to care about historic preservation, but in the black Georgetown diaspora it has a much worse reputation.

True to form as a real estate developer, the owner that renovated Bell’s Court decided to rename and rebrand the alley. Gone was Bell’s Court, with its negative associations with black poverty. In came Pomander Walk.

But where did the name come from? Like many trendy real estate rebrandings, it came from New York. It was the name of a 1910 Broadway play about a small block of houses in London. And it’s not the first housing development named after the play. In 1921, a developer in New York created a faux Tudor block in the middle of the upper west side inspired by the play and gave it the same name. It’s still there.

Despite being such a tiny street, Bell’s Court/Pomander Walk has inspired two different works of literature. In River Cross My Heart–Breena Clarke’s tale of growing up black in Georgetown in the 1930s–Bell’s Court is depicted as the home of poor blacks, newly arrived from the South, whom the protagonist is advised to avoid. And the unusual design of the street inspired Anne Lindbergh’s The People in Pineapple Place (although the magic street that appears between two houses in her book appears on P St.)

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