The section of Southeast Washington where city officials plan to locate a Major League Baseball stadium has been a hard-working neighborhood for more than 200 years with an industrial character that is unique in Washington.
In a city without many factories, it has housed numerous industrial operations, including munitions making for the Navy Yard and brick manufacturing for the building trade. Around them grew a working-class community of immigrants, former slaves and others who wanted to live near their jobs.
The stadium area, bounded by South Capitol Street to the west, First Street to the east, N Street to the north and P Street to the south, was part of "south Washington," without a neighborhood name of its own. The Anacostia River is a block or two away.
It was cut off from the rest of the city by canals and railroad tracks, and was a dead end for two centuries until the Frederick Douglass Bridge was built in 1950 to connect the area with the region to the south.
"It was always the part of town that was either low-rent dwellings or more warehouse-y industrial type uses," said David Maloney, the city's deputy state historic preservation officer. "Washington was never an industrial city at all . . . but the Navy Yard was there, and that established the tone for the waterfront as the place where people had ships, brought in goods and distributed goods."
The neighborhood's very early history is unknown, though it may have had seasonal native American encampments, since others have been found nearby. It is likely, officials said, that in order to obtain a building permit, the stadium developers would have to survey the area's archaeology and history, which may yield more information about its early days.
"That part of town 150 years ago was a hopping place," said Martin Moeller, senior vice president for special projects at the National Building Museum. But broader trends contributed to its losing favor, he said, among them construction of the Pentagon, which eclipsed the Navy Yard, and the urban renewal that cleared huge swaths of nearby Southwest.
These days, industrial operations dominate the blocks where the stadium would be built. There is an asphalt plant and a trash transfer station, with small auto-repair shops dotting the side streets. By day, trucks rumble by, kicking up dirt, the growl of their engines drowning out other sounds. By evening, the clubs open, a block of nightspots with a heavily gay clientele.
A reminder of an earlier era remains on N Street, where a flower and vegetable garden blooms down the street from five Victorian-era brick rowhouses. They are the oldest buildings in the neighborhood.
The most elegant was built in 1878 by Owen Donnelly, a carpenter, for an estimated cost of $2,300, according to Peter Sefton, an amateur historian who has researched the area and put some results on his Web site, www.victoriansecrets.net.
The Richards family, which lived there when the 1880 Census was taken, was the only household in the neighborhood with a servant who lived in, Sefton said. The family owned a brickyard on South Capitol Street.
Over the next few decades, their neighbors included a stable boss, a foundry worker probably employed at the Navy Yard, a shoemaker, a clerk and a railroad man.
William Martin's grandfather and great-uncle, who immigrated from Ireland, owned a brickyard that operated on South Capitol Street in the mid- to late 1800s. Barges delivered supplies to the yard, which bordered the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch. The bricks were delivered around the city by horse-drawn wagons.
Martin, 91, said his grandfather told him the area was so rural that he hunted waterfowl in the swamp near his home. Martin recently sold the last of the family's land, a portion of his grandfather's yard on the east side of South Capitol Street.
The Navy Yard, the city's biggest employer in the 19th century, is a few blocks east of the proposed stadium site. By 1806, more federal money was spent there on ship building and other activities than at any other yard in the country.
The neighborhood also was the site of Washington's first major manufacturing business, a sugar refinery built in 1797. The sugar came from Baltimore by sloop, and the boats docked on the river.
The sugar business failed in 1801 after a dispute among its owners, and a brewery later opened there. Nearby, at Third and N streets, a tobacco inspection warehouse opened in 1806, a rival to a Georgetown warehouse at a time when the tobacco trade was declining.
Residents did not mind living near industry that today would be considered undesirable, because it was their livelihood. But they fought other proposed uses that they regarded as nuisances.
Washington Post clippings from the 1890s detail a bitter battle in which neighbors tried to prevent a garbage-burning operation from opening on the site of what had also been a trash business. One of them threatened to blow it up if it ever opened.
Residents also complained about the dangers of a canal that had been built earlier in the 1800s as part of grand system of waterways to transport goods to and around the city. The canal business failed, and the newspaper described the results as a "filthy stream."
"If you fell in, nobody would come in after you," said Don Hawkins, an architect who is curator of a new exhibition at the National Building Museum that tells the story of the city's development. By 1920, the canals had been filled in.
Hawkins described the area as "an ignored part" of the city with "unpleasant things like the canals and the railroad" that cut it off.
"That area has been neglected for so long," said Richard Biggs, whose grandfather ran a trucking business -- A.E. Biggs -- that failed during the Great Depression. During the 1920s, he said, his grandfather knew many of the city's baseball players because they took part-time jobs to supplement their pay.
Sam Ulanow bought property on N Street 42 years ago for a waste paper business, which he sold in February. Nearby businesses at the time included a scrap yard and a paper-stock plant. The previous owner, he said, was the estate of a man, a descendant of George Washington, who had a sand and gravel operation. (At closing, he dealt with the treasurer and secretary of the sand and gravel business, "old-style Southern gentlemen who always addressed each other by last name.")
Ulanow, 84, relocated to Southeast because he had been pushed out of Southwest by urban renewal. "The changes are all for the better," he said. "The same thing is going to have to happen here. It's going to take years to do it, but it must be done. This part of the city -- I'll call it a rat's nest."
"South Capitol Street's gritty physical appearance, its present role as a commuter thoroughfare and its stagnation over the past half century collectively encapsulate the District of Columbia's most pressing problems," states a history of the area included in a D.C. Office of Planning report on an initiative to revive the South Capitol Street corridor.
The corridor stagnates, the history said, because people pass through the area and don't stop. The neighborhood's "inhospitable atmosphere" discourages private investment in improvements.
Still, there are some who would like to preserve some of the area. The D.C. Preservation League has a task force to monitor the South Capitol Street initiative, and task force chair Hayden Wetzel said he will look closely at the stadium plan in hopes that it can incorporate some existing buildings or parts of them.
Preservationists speak admiringly of the way that designers of Baltimore's baseball stadium assimilated warehouses from the surrounding streets. Although there are historic sites nearby -- including a church on South Capitol Street and the Carrollsburg neighborhood in Southwest -- Wetzel said the D.C. neighborhood does not appear to have any buildings that are especially historically significant.
"But if they are all gone," he said, "that whole working-class neighborhood would be gone, and there would be no memory that people used to live there."
Washington Post researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report.