A story in the District Weekly Oct. 11 misidentified the focus of a business in Blagden Alley. City Lights Inc. is a production lighting company. (Published 11/1/90)
The labyrinthian alleyways on the edge of Shaw that are lined with carriage houses and punctuated by a few grand old Victorians recall a slower time when Washington was still a small southern town.
A little more than a century ago, horse-led carriages still tracked down these cobblestone streets into the broad courtyards around Blagden Alley and Naylor Court. Then the two-block area was home to mostly freed slaves and working-class whites, artisan and service shops, alley stables and metal workers.
Bordered still by Ninth and 10th streets and O and M streets NW, the neighborhood today represents the best architectural example of Washington's few remaining alley communities. That explains why last month, the District Historic Preservation Review Board designated it the city's 33rd historic district.
"It's important to preserve a little piece of history of the common people, not just of people living in luxury," said Marthalu Bledsoe, a 10-year resident whose home on M Street dates to 1873.
A landmark of urban history, these alleys were identified in the early drafts of the old city plan laid out by Pierre L'Enfant. Microcosms of the District, they proceeded to mirror the tumult and prosperity as well as the changing demographics of the capital for the next 150 years.
Today, low-cost apartment buildings across M Street are home to many of the city's Hispanic immigrants, urban professionals have snapped up nearby Victorians and a few properties stand idle, waiting out the real estate slump.
Stephen J. Raiche, chief of the District's Historic Preservation Division, said intricate networks of alleys were once common to Washington, but few remain so completely intact today.
Thirty members of the Blagden Alley Association of local homeowners spent more than a year surveying the two-block area's 150 properties to substantiate their authenticity and to justify their being protected as city landmarks.
"There's no 'Washington slept here' story," said Susan Aebersold, leader of the research project who owns a two-story brick house on Blagden Alley that belonged to a man who had farmed the acreage north of the alley in the mid-1840s. "But these alleys are a great example of how this city developed."
With the busy Ninth Street commercial corridor, a proposed new convention center and the Mount Vernon Metro station slotted for construction nearby, the local residents' zeal in this project wasn't simply to preserve history, but also to guard against future commercial development.
"We feel it's imperative to maintain this close-to-town housing," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Elizabeth Blakeslee.
"This gives us a tool to say to developers, 'This is not another vacant lot,' " said Hal Davitt, who has lived on M Street for 10 years.
Charles Miles, 82, has lived in the area since he was 2, when his father took a job as a hotel waiter after failing to find a partner to work some tobacco farms in Prince George's County that he had inherited. His was the first black middle-class family on a street just north of Naylor Court, when the neighborhood was composed of mostly German and Irish immigrants.
The youngest of eight children, Miles, who became a chemist, recalls the alley outlets were ideal for games like Sheep, Sheep, Run, I Spy and hopscotch.
"There was nothing to stop us from using the streets," Miles said. "We'd use the back yard and alleyways to hide."
By then the integrated area had become largely segregated, with the houses facing the streets largely occupied by middle-class whites and working-class blacks relegated to the alley dwellings that soon became overcrowded "mini-ghettos."
In the early 1930s, Blagden Alley became the target of zealous New Deal reformers led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who wanted to eradicate deplorable living conditions in alleys citywide and used Blagden Alley as their model.
Congress even appointed an Alley Dwelling Authority to clear residents out of the alleys. Gradually the neighborhood declined and houses became boarded-up shells.
"Like any urban environment, it had its ups and downs," said Aebersold. But at least it was not leveled by developers, the fate of all but two of the District's H-shaped alleyways.
Miles recalls that the streets were much cleaner when he was a child, even though men used stiff push brooms and horse-drawn water trucks. Today the houses reflect varied levels of upkeep. Some are still boarded up along Ninth Street; others have been beautifully renovated with flowerboxes and painted cornices over bay windows.
Within a few short blocks of the area, however, residents still complain about frequent drug trafficking and prostitution and have organized active street patrols.
The alley's old stables have assumed different incarnations over the last century, reflecting changes in transportation from horse-drawn carriages to trolleys to automobiles.
Today the only commercial businesses are two auto repair shops and a commercial warehouse owned by the City Lights performance group. An 84-year-old horse barn on Naylor Court will soon be the new home of the District Archives.
"It's a living museum," Blakeslee said of the neighborhood. "The Historic Society has made a legacy that will benefit people for many years to come."