After World War II, the District began focusing on inner-city renewal. But to many less-than-affluent citizens, "reee-newal" sounded an awful lot like "reee-moval."
Before the war, political Washington pursued what historian Frederick Gutheim describes as the "multicentered regional city" strategy of dispersal of federal facilities.
The Pentagon, completed in 1941, typified the trend, having been erected on the site of the old Washington Municipal Airport between Arlington National Cemetery and the new National Airport. Originally to be housed a couple of blocks west of the White House, the War Department literally occupied the Arlington site following intra-agency battles in the late '30s over who would be where.
Further out, New Deal interest in economic and social reform had led to the construction of cooperatively owned Greenbelt. Optimistic supporters saw it as a planned utopia, an idyllic escape to the purity of nature and open space, away from the congestion of the city. Critics saw it as rampant socialism and a threat to American free enterprise. In fact, its greatest impact may have been introducing the "garden apartment" to suburbia.
During the war, some building occurred despite shortages of materials. McLean Gardens was built in 1942. The NCPPC and national Capital Housing Authority developed housing for the low-income civilians in Anacostia, at the Navy Yard and near Union Station. Such sites were picked ostensibly because of their proximity to low-level employment centers.
Nevertheless, by war's end, housing and redevelopment pressure had reached crisis proportion and promised to worsen in the face of postwar GI needs. Already overcrowded D.C. neighborhoods -- Foggy Bottom, Southwest, parts of Northwest and Capitol Hill -- had deteriorated further. Many agreed that new economic and planning mechanisms were needed to cope with growing urban problems.
The result was the 1945 D.C. Redevelopment Act. It authorized the NCPPC to designate areas for redevelopment and to adopt plans for approval by the D.C. commissioners. The Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) was formed in 1946 to acquire redevelopment properties. Stated simply, these bodies were charged with slum clearance.
Not much happened until 1949. Funding previously had been very limited, but the historic 1949 National Housing Act provided the impetus and dollars for new urban and suburban America. It financed redevelopment and public housing. Low-interest, long-term mortgage insurance programs, first devised in the '30s, expanded. Having started with Greenbelt, the government was promoting residential suburbia for the mobile middle class while simultaneously aspiring to rebuild the inner city.
The next two decades in Washington, as in many cities, were characterized by highway building, comprehensive planning efforts and urban renewal. While new roads and new subdivisions were devouring farmland as fast as FHA and VA mortgages could be endorsed, so-called blight was being attacked downtown.
Southwest D.C. represents most graphically what occurred during the '50s and '60s. Families, mostly poor, were displaced and forced into overcrowded conditions elsewhere in the city. Only a few had the means to return to their redeveloped neighborhoods.
The property they once occupied was cleared, its value written down below acquisition costs, and its use upgraded by construction of new administrative, commercial and residential structures for a decidedly more affluent population. Elevated freeways swept by overhead, following the example of the Whitehurst in Gerogetown.
Redevelopers had economic and locational logic on their side. Southwest formed the Mall's Independence Avenue edge and was a stone's throw from the Capitol. It could yield new tax revenues and be safe to walk through. Notions of neighborhood preservation for local citizens held little sway against the planning, architectural, economic and political theories dominating the landscape of the '50s and '60s.
Southwest was totally transformed. Blocks of modern mid-rise, low-rise and town-house dwellings were constructed. Federal agency office buildings marched southward from the Mall. The Forrestal and L'Enfant Plaza complexes appeared with their pavement-covered subterranean worlds, and an ambiguously defined Potomac River waterfront completed the picture.
Along the Mall, the Smithsonian continued implementing the McMillan Commission plan. It built the Museum of American History, the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden and the Air and Space Museum to join its other cultural landmarks. In the 1970s, the National Gallery of Art built its East Wing.
As Southwest and the Mall took shape, other areas were changing. Preservation and development efforts around Lafayette Square were followed by the still ongoing redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House.
Across the river, Crystal City and Rosslyn, visually linked to the District, had sprouted up in defiance of Washington's building height tradition. These Arlington mini-downtowns were made up of offices, hotels and apartment buildings through which people could parade either underground or overhead.
The proliferation of attorneys, trade associations, lobbyists, accountants and others interested in being near the center of power was spurring office and hotel development like never before. The business district expanded rapidly westward along K and other streets, eventually encompassing the West End. Bumping up against Rock Creek Park, office builders leapfrogged into lower Gerogetown while reversing eastwardly toward 11th Street and the new Convention Center. However, traditional downtown department store trade continued its exodus.
To the north, postwar commercial rezoning was bringing downtown uptown along Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont avenues, often contrary to the wishes of residents. Closer to the Capitol, new administrative and hotel building was appearing around Judiciary Square and Union Station. Capitol Hill, like Georgetown earlier, was being "gentrified." And subsidized housing kept rising in near Northwest and Anacostia following patterns established in earlier decades.
Outside the District, the automobile tenaciously controlled the environment. The Capital Beltway, the nation's first complete circumferential highway, opened in 1964. Envisioned in Harland Bartholomew's 1950 plan as a means to facilitate the pattern of dispersal started in the '30s, it quickly became a metropolitan-area Main Street.
New travel and settlement patterns emerged near interchanges or along radial roads. A preference for suburbia produced new shopping centers, office and industrial parks, and endless commercial strips in surrounding Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties. Going downtown became optional.
Back in the city, in the hope of alleviating traffic congestion and eliminating more freeway construction, a subway system was planned and built thanks to regional cooperation among the D.C., county, state and federal governments. Metro brings commuters to and from downtown along essentially radial paths; travel along other paths, or to Georgetown, requires bus or car.
Seen from a metropolitan perspective, Metro's map clearly shows that the urban core of the District is "downtown." For more than 3 million people, many of whom live in suburbs that could be part of any city, it's a blessing that the heart of Washington so clearly retains a unique shape, a physical coherence and a significance lacking in most urban and suburban environments. For this, Washingtonians (and all Americans) are indebted to L'Enfant's plan. Like the Constitution, its timeless principles have guided and accommodated nearly two centuries of unforeseen growth and change with amazing success.
NEXT: An Aesthetic Overview of L'Enfant's Washington.