Southwest Waterfront “Urban Renewal”

Category: Labor Struggles/History

Used in the following map:

DC Labor Map

The Southwest Waterfront is one of DC’s oldest—and new-est—neighborhoods. For 150 years, this was a working waterfront communi-ty. “Urban renewal” changed the landscape forever. Today, Southwest is a virtual library of Modernist architecture of the 1960s with a few historic struc-tures, some of which go all the way back to the section’s beginnings.
In the 1950s New York developers Webb and Knapp put their ideas for Ur-ban Renewal into a formal plan for a new Southwest, the nation’s first full-scale urban renewal project. Architects Harry Weese and I.M. Pei envisioned a 10th Street Mall linking the National Mall to a rebuilt waterfront and a residential area serving 4,000 families of varying incomes. Offices, hotels, restaurants and shops would line the new mall. A major cultural and entertainment center would complete the picture.
While most of the residential buildings materialized, Webb and Knapp never completed the Tenth Street Mall, and the cultural center was built instead in Foggy Bottom (today’s Kennedy Center). Nevertheless, the brand new resi-dential areas, so convenient to the federal core, attracted middle-class govern-ment workers as well as members of Congress and their staffers.
“We thought we were urban pioneers,” recalled journalist Neal Peirce. “We were moving back to the center city and were quite idealistic…. We wanted to make Southwest a model….” The new Southwest housed Hubert Humphrey and Sandra Day O’Connor, among others. Some low-income former residents were able to return, but most were displaced, casting a shadow on the urban renewal ideal.
The neighborhood is being totally remade once again, with the massive re-development of the waterfront itself that you’ll see on the way to our next stop, in addition to building of a new soccer stadium. Both are likely to severely impact what remains of the low-income housing in the neighborhood, such as the St. James Mutual Homes we just passed on P Street.
- Fhar Miess