The city of Washington DC is divided into four quadrants, defined by perpendicular lines radiating from the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. The smallest of these quadrants, Southwest, is bound by the National Mall to the north, South Capitol Street to the east, and the Potomac River to the south and west.
Early in the history of Washington, Southwest developed into a diverse neighborhood. Close to the river, industry thrived, drawing working class immigrants and free African Americans to work and live. Likewise, its proximity to the Capitol appealed to government workers, who also settled in the area. However, with the introduction of the city canal and later railroad, Southwest became increasingly cut off from the rest of the city and the proliferation of large industry drove out affluent residents.
By the 1940s the condition of Southwest had severely deteriorated. Much of the housing was in poor condition; many alley slums featured no electricity or running water. In 1946, Congress authorized the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), giving the agency power to enact eminent domain in order to demolish and rebuild entire neighborhoods. Sitting in the shadow of the Capitol, Southwest was seen as a “blight” on the capital city and was promoted as the perfect grounds for experimenting with large-scale urban renewal.
Demolition began in 1954 and would eventually encompass all but a few select properties. Government buildings and high-rise condominiums replaced low-income housing and small commercial ventures. As with many urban renewal projects of the era, excitement for a re-imagined Southwest failed to include the existing residents, displacing entire communities and providing only nominal forays into affordable housing.
The first large-scale urban renewal effort in the country, the redevelopment of Southwest attracted leading American architects, who contributed designs for government, commercial, and residential construction. Today, many of these structures remain, including Marcel Breuer’s iconic Housing and Urban Development building and I.M. Pei’s L’Enfant Plaza. Loved and hated, the mid-century modernist design showcased in Southwest makes it one of the most architecturally distinctive neighborhoods in the city.