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.
-Adapted from the SW Small Area Plan
Interested in learning more about the history of Southwest DC?
History of The Wharf - From pastoral beginnings to industrial heydays, fish market to cultural center, the Southwest Waterfront has always been an important part of Washington, DC’s story.
Images of America: Southwest D.C. - Read about Southwest DC history starting in the 1700's through the 1950's.
Southwest Remembered - This 50 minute long video looks at how Urban Renewal affected Southwest DC residents.