Southwest DC all started with famed master planner Pierre L'Enfant's original city plans for the District of Columbia.
The neighborhood began largely as an industrial shipyard, with fishermen selling daily catches directly off their boats until the Municipal Fish Market was established. In the years that followed, Southwest DC grew into a bustling community with commercial corridors along 4th and 7th Streets, establishing itself as a neighborhood for the District's working class immigrants and, after the Civil War, a home for a significant number of African Americans.
The neighborhood population peaked around 1905 with 35,000 residents. Unfortunately, a number of problems – including the community’s industrial character and an undesirable building stock – led to the community’s decline and ultimately to its label as a blighted neighborhood. Given the problems that plagued the community, Southwest was targeted for inclusion in the federal government’s urban renewal program. Beginning in 1954, Southwest was essentially torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. A traumatic time in the history of Southwest DC, approximately 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses were displaced to make way for the redevelopment. As the neighborhood was rebuilt, the distinctive architectural style of the time took hold and Southwest remains “a museum of mid-century modern architecture”.
In the years that followed, Southwest became known as a quiet and under-realized quadrant with a quaint residential neighborhood along the waterfront and a significant federal government footprint in Southwest Federal Center. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that the development boom occurring in D.C. reached Southwest - including a redesigned Arena Stage, the new Waterfront Station complex, and the groundbreaking of the Wharf.
Today, Southwest is experiencing unprecedented investment and growth. Southwest DC is quickly getting remixed, remade and repurposed to become DC's next great neighborhood.
Following urban renewal, only a few relics of the past remained: the Municipal Fish Market, the Wheat Row townhouses, the Thomas Law House, and the St. Dominic's and Friendship churches. Southwest DC was eventually rebuilt in a brutalist style of architecture -- a popular modernist style at the time. It was during that time that the iconic I. M. Pei-designed building L’Enfant Plaza and Southwest Federal Center came to life.
In the decades that followed, Southwest DC remained a sleepy, relatively low-income and often dangerous community that was filled with federal government offices. Ironically enough, urban renewal was widely considered a failure. But while many of the residential neighborhoods of Southwest grew and ultimately became highly mixed-race and mixed-income, the wave of new development occurring throughout D.C. reached Southwest, in 2003, including a number of apartment building renovations and condominium conversions.
With the opening of the Safeway grocery store, in 2010, the groundbreaking of the $2 billion, mile-long community The Wharf, in 2014, and the recent renovations of L'Enfant Plaza, Southwest DC is quickly getting remixed, remade and repurposed to become DC's next great neighborhood.