The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There will be blood: Some District neighborhoods once sported memorable names

A view of the District’s Logan Circle in 1950. The Northwest neighborhood, formerly known as Hell’s Bottom, was once considered one of the city’s most dangerous areas.
A view of the District’s Logan Circle in 1950. The Northwest neighborhood, formerly known as Hell’s Bottom, was once considered one of the city’s most dangerous areas. (Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post)
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Monday, I wrote about the fluid boundaries of certain D.C. neighborhoods, such as “downtown” and “midtown.” Today’s subject is fluid, too, and that fluid is blood.

Imagine Washington of the late 19th century, a time when crepuscular night often turned corpuscular. Blood would flow.

Back then, crime inspired neighborhood names that were a little catchier than Brookland or Glover Park. Of course, those names served a different purpose. They weren’t a product of savvy developers hoping to lure residents. They were popularized by journalists not above a bit of sensationalizing.

In 1923, a Washington Post writer named George Rothwell Brown noted that some of the danger had evaporated from Washington’s dicier neighborhoods. Some of the danger, but some of the poetry, too.

Wrote Brown: “In the process of becoming a city of culture and refinement, a center of art and of learning — rather a ‘highbrow’ town, indeed — Washington was obliged to shake from the hem of her garments a good deal of what used to be unsavory, but which now, we may thankfully say, remains only as a dim tradition of a picturesque past. In its ‘unwashed neck’ days, so to speak, the nation’s Capital was a far more colorful place than it is now. There has been refined out much that made us, well, let us say, quaint.”

Here are some of the “colorful” places. And that color? Red.

Bloodfield. Nothing subtle about that name. It was the area around the intersection of South Capitol Street and M Street, straddling Southeast and Southwest D.C. The James Creek Canal, which ran from South Capitol to the Anacostia, was a fetid feature. About a dozen bodies were fished out every year. Knife fights, gunfights and drunken “affrays” were common.

Reading the rather racist press accounts of Bloodfield can be dispiriting, but I found at least one bright spot. In 1905 the Evening Star wrote about Mrs. S.C. Fernandis, a “bright, educated” black woman who ran a social settlement at 118 M St. SW for impoverished children. Said Fernandis: “I am trying in my humble and limited sphere to scatter a little sunshine in the gloom which has pervaded some of the homes in this part of Washington.”

Murder Bay. This was a “vile district” roughly where Federal Triangle is now, around Pennsylvania Avenue NW, east of the White House. In the late 1800s its tarpaper-roof shacks were overrun with gamblers, robbers and drunks. “All branches of crime flourished,” remembered one reporter. “Boys were given lessons in porch-climbing and pocket-picking.”

Hey, everyone needs a trade.

Hell’s Bottom. This was the area around today’s Logan Circle (then called Iowa Circle). Many considered it the most dangerous neighborhood in Washington. Wrote The Post: “This country was a great hangout for footpads and sneak-thieves.”

Reminiscing about his youth, a Star reporter wrote about how his father sold their Hell’s Bottom house at a loss just to get out of there.

Not all the old D.C. neighborhoods had violence in their names:

Pipetown. This was in Southeast, from 11th Street to the Anacostia River, where livestock wandered amid shacks and trash heaps. Wrote the Star: “According to legend, this browsing area derived its name from the fact that practically every man, woman and child living there was an habitual pipe smoker.”

No mention of whether the livestock smoked, too.

White Chapel. Sounds pretty, but this was a “dirty alley” between 24th and 25th streets and M and N streets NW, the heart of today’s West End. In the 1880s, its inhabitants were, according to The Post, “at almost constant warfare with the police.”

Bear’s Gap. Was there a bear? Why the gap? Whatever the answer, this area at the rear of Third and G streets SW was dubbed “one of the worst alleys in the District” in the 1890s.

Swampoodle. This catchy name for the once-Irish neighborhood north of Union Station and straddling North Capitol Street seems to be making a comeback. A 1963 story in the Evening Star claimed that it was coined by a newspaper reporter who had to slosh through numerous “swamps and puddles” on his way to cover the opening of St. Aloysius Church in 1859. Swamps and puddles? Swampoodle.

Frankly, that sounds a little too neat for me.

Cow Town. Florida Avenue used to be known as Boundary Street, marking the division between the city of Washington and Washington County. Livestock were not allowed in the city, so animal owners congregated in the area, near today’s Howard University. So did the infrastructure those animals demanded: slaughterhouses.

And so we’re back to blood.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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