Birney Public School students take a field trip in the Barry Farm/Hillsdale neighborhood around 1900, in an image by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. Courtesy Library of Congress.
There’s nothing like studying an old photo of your neighborhood to reawaken your appreciation for that cute park around the corner or the Gothic facade you pass on the way to work. “Washington at Home” ($45, Johns Hopkins University Press), an updated edition of Kathryn Schneider Smith’s popular 1988 book, is filled with rewarding glimpses into our city’s past, making it a must-read for any resident with a love of local history and landmarks. The weighty, 514-page tome contains essays by a team of historians, folklorists, journalists and museum experts on 26 of the District’s neighborhoods, from Congress Heights to Chevy Chase. Six of those essays are new, and many photos, maps and illustrations have also been added.
Jane Freundel Levey, the consulting editor for “Washington at Home” and the director of Heritage Programs for Cultural Tourism D.C., will moderate a panel discussion with four “Washington at Home” contributors at Busboys & Poets on Tuesday, Jan. 25. The featured authors — Jim Byers (East Washington Heights), Kia Chatmon (Deanwood), Brian Kraft (Columbia Heights) and Alison K. Hoagland (Seventh Street/Downtown) — will discuss migrations’ impact on their particular neighborhoods of expertise.
“Migrations — meaning the movement of people into neighborhoods, the movement of people out of neighborhoods and the movement of people through areas in the city — is one of the themes that comes through the book in every chapter,” Levey says. “We chose these neighborhoods because they all show migrations of one kind or another.” Those migrations, of course, are often tied as much to housing market trends as to cultural or social shifts; the people who live in a community leave lasting marks on its identity.
We asked Levey to tell us more about the Capital’s ever-changing areas, and what makes our many, varied enclaves so special.
Of the neighborhoods your panel covers, which have seen the most notable recent changes?
All of our neighborhoods are what the developers call “in play.” Columbia Heights is especially active with the culmination of all of this new construction, so there’s a whole lot of new shopping there and new residential buildings. It’s a very dynamic place right now.
Downtown has also been through a boom in residential building, and you could add to it the Mount Vernon Square area, which has lot of new residential buildings that have [attracted buyers] recently.
East Washington Heights is not as lively, but it’s getting discovered. Take the Hillcrest neighborhood, for example. When people go look at Hillcrest they get confused; they think they might be in Cleveland Park or in Chevy Chase, because the housing stock is similar. That’s partly because the developers are some of the same people, and it’s being discovered because, let’s face it: The bottom line here is that people are tired of commuting if they work in the city.
Deanwood is also beginning to attract a new wave of investment from people who have discovered it’s on the Metro, the location is nice and it’s a very small-town feel. Deanwood has been historically African American since after the Civil War and some of the people who are moving in now are white. That’s a change to the neighborhood.
To what degree do the neighborhoods in Maryland and Virginia impact Washington’s identity and history?
I’m a firm believer in the Washington metropolitan area concept. If you look at the membership of the historical society of Washington, D.C., for example, a lot of those people live outside the city but they certainly consider themselves Washingtonians. We obviously have employment areas that are outside of the city today that are very successful and people commute to those or live near them. But D.C. as a city is always going to be, I believe, the center of our work life. And the cultural life is still very, very strong in the city.
This is a self-selecting thing. Rockville, for example, was developed as a Maryland small town. It connected to the city very early on in the 1890s by streetcar. That was right when streetcars were becoming practical for such a long distance and the town was very, very determined to have that streetcar out there because it wanted to be connected to D.C.
Home prices in our area have fared better than in many other parts of the country over the last few years. Rents have also risen faster in D.C. over the last decade than in most major cities. What makes it such an investment to live in D.C.?
Historically speaking, whenever there’s a national crisis, a world crisis, a war, an economic problem, Washington grows, and as a consequence we get more people and more demand for our housing. Our housing holds its value very well and has historically. Another reason is we have really good housing here. Especially in the city, there are wonderful neighborhoods with really great architecture. The Washington row houses are a good example. Everyone lives in them when they can at some point. They’re comfortable, they’re easy to take care of and they give you a sense of community.
In the early part of the 20th century, Georgetown wasn’t known as a particularly expensive or desirable place to live; it was actually fairly rundown and populated by many low-income residents. Will Georgetown — and other expensive neighborhoods — ever cycle back to being low-end housing stock?
Oh sure, I think it will happen. You can’t predict the future. But looking back at the shifts, the thing that has had the biggest impact on Washington’s development over time has been transportation innovations. And right now we’re at a funny moment where those transportation innovations that built up places outside of the city or that made communities in the city accessible, are not — I don’t want to say they’re obsolete, but they’ve got lots of problems. People are really having a tough time with commuting and traffic, which makes the closer-in neighborhoods attractive again. But who’s to say what the next transportation innovation is going to be. If, 50 years from now, we all have our private helicopters, it won’t matter.
Alexander Graham Bell, center, wife Mabel, left, and Mabel’s mother, Gertrude Hubbard, pose for a photo outside of the Hubbards’ summer estate, Twin Oaks, located in Cleveland Park. The home, which is today owned by Taiwan, is preserved as a nationally designated historic landmark. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Which neighborhoods do you think are hidden treasures?
The architecture in Hillcrest is interesting and the views are spectacular. These are single-family houses and there are some Art Deco gems over there. Certainly Cleveland Park has the great Queen Anne houses with the big porches; those are very much in demand and they’re really quite lovely. I would say Newark Street is a great place to take a slow drive on, up to Highland Place. You’ll be back in the 1890s, for sure.
Any other neighborhoods that will take you back in time?
Cleveland Park, LeDroit Park would absolutely bring you back 100 years ago. Parts of Georgetown, for sure. Georgetown was one of the first places in the country to have historic preservation protection. In 1950, it was declared a historic district after a lot of the residents lobbied Congress to do that, and they were one of the first [groups] in the nation. And if you think about it, we’re talking 60 years ago; many things could have changed and didn’t.
» Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW; 6:30 p.m., free; 202-387-7638. (U Street/Cardozo)
Photos courtesy Cultural Tourism DC