When I was a small boy in the early part of the century, I thought that 4 1/2 Street SW was surely the most beautiful street in the world. Wide as an avenue, cobblestoned, bordered by century-old elms and wide hand-laid brick sidewalks, it ran straight as a die from Fort McNair (which we called the Arsenal), through the Mall (which we called the Park) to Pennsylvania Avenue, where, for some mysterious reason, it suddenly became John Marshall Place before dead-ending a few blocks north at the old courthouse. It came by its name honestly enough as it was located halfway between Third and Sixth streets. There was no Fourth or Fifth street.
In the center of the street were the streetcar tracks of the Washington Railway and Electric Co., known to all as the WRECO. Fares were 5 cents, or six tickets for a quarter.
The street seemed to be the main thoroughfare of No. 4 Engine Co., located on Virginia Avenue between 4 1/2 and Sixth streets. We thrilled to the sight of the engines each pulled by three horses, nostrils flared and manes flying as they raced down the street, their iron-clad hooves creating sparks from the cobblestones. Usually there were four firemen on each wagon. On the driver's seat one man strained at the reins while another handled the whip. On the rear platform one fireman rang the bell, while the other stoked the furnace to build up a head of steam. Our mother could never break us of the habit of chasing the fire engines. As a historical note, this fire company was the last one in Washington to be motorized.
I must note that 4 1/2 Street had the dubious distinction of having a superabundance of saloons. For instance, in the single block between I and K streets there were five saloons!
We lived at 826 4 1/2 St. SW. This eventually became part of the site of the first apartment complex in the revitalized Southwest. Our father paid rent of $16 a month for this six-room house. About 1909, he bought an eight-room house at 343 H Street SW. for $2,500. He sold it in 1914 for $3,000 and thought that he had made a fortune!
Four-and-a-half Street was our playground. There was adequate light, even at night, because there were high carbon-arc lamps. We played taddy, kick stick, home sheep run and other games. Boys today do not know the simple pleasure of rolling a hoop or rattling a stick along a picket fence. Radio and television never distracted us -- there wasn't any.
We played baseball and football alongside the stone wall of the Pennsylvania Railroad freight station on E Street just east of 4 1/2 Street. Total width of the playing field was about 25 feet! And the stone wall accounted for innumerable skinned elbows and knees. For swimming, we either walked or bicycled to the municipal pools just west of the Washington Monument, about where 17th Street is now.
The first movie house in Southwest was the Welcome Theater, at 4 1/2 Street between I and K next door to Levy's Busy Corner, a general store. Cost of admission was 5 cents.
We had some wonderful neighbors. One of them, the Rev. Yoelson, was a shoechet (ritual slaughterer), a chaazen (cantor) and a mohel (ritual circumciser). His oldest son, Asa Yoelson, became Al Jolson, an internationally known entertainer. My father and the Reverend were very close friends, so naturally Rev. Yoelson officiated at my Bris (circumcision). Years later my father told me that at my Bris he had promised Rev. Yoelson that he could officiate at my wedding, which he did when I married Eva Mendelsohn, whose father, Abraham, operated Mendelsohn's Antique Galleries at 1225 Connecticut Ave. I have frequently maintained that the only reason I ever got married was so as to not make a liar out of my father, a brand of humor that my wife does not appreciate.
Another good neighbor was Rabbi M.A. Horwitz, whose son, Alec , became my closest friend. Alec became an outstanding Washington surgeon.
Our physician was a kindly Dr. Walter whose office was on H Street between 4 1/2 and Sixth. He had a Vandyke beard and always smelled of carbolic acid. Sometimes he would let me make rounds with him in his horse and buggy. House calls were $1, but if a patient came to the office the charge was 50 cents! His brother, a pharmacist, operated a drug store on the southwest corner of 4 1/2 and I streets. The double windows had a large bowl in each, one filled with blue liquid and the other with a red liquid. Inside was a marble soda fountain. Ice cream sodas (heavenly) were 5 cents.
Our closest schools were Smallwood, on I Street, and the S.J. Bowen, on K Street, both between Third and 4 1/2 streets. For some reason I was shuttled between the two. First and second, and fifth and sixth grades were spent in Smallwood; third and fourth, and seventh and eighth, were in S.J. Bowen.
My father and mother, Joseph and Ida, were very religious orthodox Jews. Together with a few other Jews, they founded the synagogue known as the Talmud Torah. This was the second oldest orthodox synagogue in Washington. I remember dimly that the congregation was housed in a small wooden building at 467 E St. SW. This was torn down about 1907 and replaced with a brick building. It eventually merged with Ohev Sholom, the oldest orthodox synagogue in Washington, and is now located at 16th and Jonquil streets NW.
I left Southwest in 1923 when I married and we moved to an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. Both my parents lived in Southwest until 1942, then they moved to a new house at 14th and Delafield St. NW. That's when I really lost touch completely with Southwest. Now when I go down there I don't know the place. I get lost.