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. Continue reading