Looking out the bay window of her row house, Margaret Headley watched the wrecking ball tear through the empty home of a close neighbor. Bricks scattered, a huge hole opened in the roof, and Headley sobbed.
With the Marsden house gone, the Headleys were left on their own on Ninth Street in Southwest Washington. And before a few weeks passed, even they had succumbed to the crush of urban renewal that decimated their corner of the District in 1958.
Eleven years spent anchored in the same spot, and 32 years of living in the same neighborhood, came to a crashing end as the federal government made way for what is now L'Enfant Plaza. Headley went back only once to visit her former home and found the demolition crew already at work. She stooped and picked up a brick that she keeps to this day on her fireplace hearth.
"This is all I have from the old house," she said.
Headley was one of about 20,000 residents of old Southwest Washington who were forced to move in the 1950s. Gone is a section of Washington remembered by many as the perfect place to have grown up, where the butcher, baker and banker were nearby and the faces on the street were familiar.
In the 1950s, the federal government embarked on a massive plan to wipe out slums in cities across the country. "Urban renewal" was the term used to denote the wholesale razing of "substandard" housing and its replacement with attractive neighborhoods. If federal officials could erase blighted areas, they could build new housing that would keep the middle class from migrating to the suburbs. Eliminating poverty wasn't one of the goals, but getting it out of sight was.
In the Southwest community bounded by South Capitol Street, the Anacostia River, Washington Channel and Independence Avenue SW, black and white families seemed to live peaceably in a city that still was racially segregated. The east side of the neighborhood was mostly black and the west side mostly white, with residents mingling on playgrounds and along two shopping corridors where most merchants were European Jews.
It had worked as a community because of the intricate layering of income levels that comes with a neighborhood that evolves over decades. Poor residents as well as new arrivals could see industrious people right next door who held regular jobs and others who had become business owners, doctors and lawyers.
The memories, turned golden with the years for Headley and others, are marred by the community's ending.
Headley said she and her husband, Albert, a lawyer, had no choice but to sell to the government and leave. "We held out until the very end, until we were the last house standing," said Headley, now 81.
Her last images of her block of Ninth Street near Maryland Avenue SW are of shadowy scavengers who came at night and picked clean the carcasses of empty houses, prying off fireplace mantels and stripping copper pipes. During the day, large river rats scurried over crushed lumber while abandoned pet dogs and cats nosed about for food.
The government's approach to remaking the city called for blunt tools; it wasn't going to promote renewal by carving out poor parts and preserving the rest. With rare exception, everything was to go. Chewed up with the hovels in old Southwest were solid Victorian row houses like the Headleys' and blocks of thriving small businesses.
The federal government had declared the neighborhood a slum, and reporters bolstered that image by referring to it as "a sore spot of crime, illegitimacy, refuse and disordered lives." Photographers ignored handsome blocks in favor of portraying sad little alley dwellings, many without indoor plumbing.
One merchant, who argued that his business was not run-down and should be saved, lost his case when it reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that government had a right to take even a well-maintained property when it was within a slum clearance area.
Yet what some called a slum, others called home and valued for the thick web of extended families and strong friendships. Headley was raised in Southwest, the only child of a housekeeper and a father who died in World War I. When she married her husband, they moved into his childhood home, a three-story red-brick row house his parents had purchased in 1900.
They liked the neighborhood, the convenient shopping on Fourth and Seventh streets and the easy walk to the Smithsonian. They were members of St. Dominic's Catholic Church at Sixth and E "People would be buying the houses by the square inch, just like on
-- Joseph Curtis, a resident, predicting
what would have happened if
Old Southwest had been left alone
streets, and he was president of the Southwest Citizens Association.
"We would have stayed forever," she said.
Joseph Curtis, who grew up at 831 Delaware Ave. SW, said the neighborhood had "darn good houses." He fought unsuccessfully to protect his family home, where his mother still lived. She ended up moving in with relatives in LeDroit Park.
Curtis, who chaired the Southwest Civic Association, called on his black neighbors to hold meetings with public officials, testify at urban renewal hearings and protest. Albert Headley, his counterpart on the white Southwest Citizens Association, did likewise. In the end, all they accomplished was slowing the process. Urban renewal -- or urban removal, as cynics called it -- was the right way to go as far as District and federal officials were concerned.
The District was a voterless enclave at the time, and that made it easy for the federal government to use the city as a guinea pig for federal experiments, according to a 1959 report, "Crisis Downtown: A Church-Eye View of Urban Renewal," written by the Rev. Robert G. Howes. In 1958, models of the Southwest project were set up at the World's Fair in Brussels as part of the U.S. exhibit. At the groundbreaking for new buildings, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a message proclaiming, "The Nation's Capital can lead the way in restoring hope and strength to areas of likely deterioration in the great cities of our land."
From 1954 to 1960, most of Old Southwest was leveled. A few landmarks, including St. Dominic's, were spared.
Curtis, in particular, is bitter when he recalls promises made at public hearings that displaced residents of modest means would be able to return.
Some residents of public housing were able to stay by moving to a new complex built for them along Half Street. But very few others ever returned, because the new housing was priced for middle- and upper-income people, Curtis said.
Curtis, who had left the neighborhood years earlier to live in Anacostia, came back in 1975 when he purchased a co-op apartment in a high-rise building.
Margaret and Albert Headley moved to Barnaby Woods. Margaret Headley said they spent two years looking before they found an affordable place on Rittenhouse Street NW.
In retrospect, more than buildings were lost in Old Southwest.
In a doctoral dissertation on Southwest, historian Carol Kolker identifies the neighborhood as the obvious place for immigrants and migrants to locate. She said it had what poor people needed: low rents and proximity to work.
"Successive streams of migrants -- increasingly poor working-class blacks, immigrants and native-born whites -- would find community as they made the adjustment to urban life and attempted to gain a foothold," she wrote. "Where residents found community, civic and charity leaders saw deterioration. . . . For the people who lived there, Southwest was a vital neighborhood community supported by a stable core of long-term residents, convenient shopping and established religious institutions."
Cut off from most of Washington by a canal and later by railroad tracks, Old Southwest was an area physically and psychologically apart. Even now, half a century later, former residents say there is an automatic bond among strangers who discover they came from there. "Whenever you meet anyone who lived in Southwest, they are like family," said Mary Proctor, who moved out long before the demolition, in 1939.
Because of its proximity to the Capitol, Southwest had long been attractive to government officials seeking housing for the work force. After World War II, city planners had to deal with an escalating population in Washington, where there were few places left to build. The changes for Old Southwest were under discussion for years before the first house on Dixon Court was bulldozed on April 26, 1954. Local planners listened to national experts, such as Alfred Bettman, who said old urban areas didn't have to be saved and built around but rather should be erased and redrawn.
Massive demolition was familiar to city planners who had already erased a neighborhood along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW to build the Federal Triangle and who had made way for the Southwest Freeway.
Members of Congress were enthusiastic about urban renewal and passed legislation that enabled the District, and other cities, to designate areas for redevelopment and finance the projects. In Washington, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission was in charge of planning for redevelopment, but the newly created Redevelopment Land Agency had the responsibility to assemble land parcels, demolish buildings, prepare sites and then dispose of land.
The RLA, as it was known, quickly became the organization to hate. It formed panels that set artificially low prices for homes whose owners had refused to sell, often leaving families that had been comfortably making their mortgage payments suddenly in debt.
In a report on file at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. library, Mrs. A.C. Hagen, president of the Southwest Displaced Persons Grievance Committee, wrote on May 24, 1960, about a number of hardship cases. She noted several "gentle women," who had rented out rooms to meet expenses and were left without their homes and their income.
Then she gave her own situation: "On 3,000 square feet of land we owned near the Mall, bought in '52 on an appraisal of $5 per square foot, the RLA offered us $1.26 per square foot. After spending $4,500 fighting our case, we got $2 per square foot from the jury -- an asinine value for some of the most valuable land in the city," zoned for apartment use.
Over the next decade, federal office buildings, high-rise apartments and row houses rose on the scraped ground. The old shopping districts were replaced with a small mall on 10th Street.
Past residents are fond of saying that if the old neighborhood had been left alone, it would by now be a restored historic area.
"People would be buying the houses by the square inch, just like on Capitol Hill," Curtis said.
CAPTION: A building at Seventh Street and Virginia Avenue SW is torn down in an urban renewal project. (1957 photo)
CAPTION: Margaret Headley, 81, holds a brick from her home in Old Southwest. "This is all I have from the old house," she said.
CAPTION: The Headleys had a painting done from a photograph of the family's old home on Ninth Street SW. The beloved neighborhood was demolished in 1958 as the federal government made way for what is now L'Enfant Plaza.