How Foggy Bottom Changed

By Mary-Alice Farina

Before the transformation of the Anacostia Waterfront and the Navy Yard began, there was Foggy Bottom. The fashionable Northwest neighborhood, now home to luxury condominiums, pristine river views and affluent seniors, was characterized by tenement dwellings, smoke stacks and slums 60 years ago.

At the end of the 18th century, the riverbanks now dominated by the Kennedy Center were D.C.’s gang-ridden and malaria-infested industrial hub. Breweries, lime kilns, shipyards and the Washington Gas Light Company facility brought an influx of European immigrants to Foggy Bottom. Foggy Bottom residents, mostly unskilled manual laborers, often spoke no English.

The area around Washington Circle, named “Round Tops” after the notorious gang that controlled it, was considered one of the most dangerous parts of town. During the population boom after the Civil War, Foggy Bottom’s “ethnic” and working class inhabitants were primarily Irish and German. A Washington Post article quoted a then-resident: “If you picked a fight with an Irishman at 17th Street, you’d have to fight every other Irishman down to the river at 27th Street before you could escape.”

When the slave trade was officially abolished in Washington in 1850, an increasing number of black families moved to the neighborhood for work opportunities. By 1920, prohibition and a faltering economy slowed Foggy Bottom’s previously thriving industry. Those who had the means to leave the neighborhood did, namely the German and Irish immigrants who were increasingly acculturated to white middle class America. Only the poorest residents remained, most of them, black.

Snow’s Court at 24th and I streets NW now houses expensive rowhouses in the shadow of a luxury condo building. But in the early 20th century, it housed alley dwellings that were some of the most notorious slums in Washington’s history. Most Foggy Bottom residents lived in abject poverty, according to a 1944 Washington Housing Association survey. Over half of the population shared or had no bathing and toilet facilities, a quarter had no running water and one-fifth had no electricity.

Dramatic transformation began in Foggy Bottom when the government targeted the area for redevelopment, and two significant moves laid the foundations for further development. In 1949, the Department of State moved into the neighborhood. Then Washington Gas Works—the last bastion of Foggy Bottom industry—closed in 1954.

Foggy Bottom’s skyline, no longer blighted by smoke stacks, had more and more government office buildings. Real estate developers took note of the potential; plans for “Potomac Plaza,” in the style of New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza, were drawn up. Developers’ plans for luxury high rises and civic buildings drew the attention of wealthy individuals, who swept in and renovated old brick slums like Snow’s Court. The Watergate and the Kennedy Center, constructed by the early 1970s, completed the transformation.

Conversations about neighborhood transformation and gentrification are burgeoning in the District, but some of those forces took place decades ago in many neighborhoods. Foggy Bottoms’ Washington Circle, once an Irish gang crossroads, will soon be home to a Whole Foods.

Mary-Alice Farina is a writer for 365DC. Read her in-depth Foggy Bottom history here and follow her on twitter at @mafalicious.

  • Guest

    Surprised there is no mention of The George Washington University at all in this article.

  • Somedude

    Petey Greene grew up a little outside of the immediate Foggy Bottom area but in the book about his life, in his own words, he describes with vivid detail his experiences running the streets. He had no indoor plumbing. 

  • Native Guide

    The photo noted “Snows Court today” is not of Snows Court, it is of 25th Street between Eye Street and the River Inn.  One often finds that if one knows anything about the subject of articles by the daft, one realizes that the authors do not.

  • Native Guide

    Also, it is Snows Court, not Snow’s.