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Foggy Bottom – Washington DC


Ask folks what the neighborhood of Foggy Bottom conjures in their minds, they might say culture, as it is the home of the behemoth Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Or, possibly, governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations such as The United States Department of State, the World Health Organization or the World Bank. Another sure bet would be excellence in education as the home of The George Washington University. The Watergate may be mentioned for both those who like intrigue and scandal. And, high-end real estate might make the list. But, it’s almost guaranteed that ‘slums’ would not register a blip on the radar. Yet, for most of Foggy Bottom’s history that is precisely what created the neighborhood.

Foggy Bottom is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Established in the late 18th century, the land was originally purchased by a German settler by the name of Jacob Funck and called “Funckstown.” Mr. Funck bought 130 acres of land from Frederick County (Maryland), which he subdivided and then sold to a handful of speculators. Capitalizing on the location, with its easy access to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which was both broader and deeper than it is today, shipping began to develop as an important industry as wharves were built on the river. Initially, the neighborhood only boasted one large stone warehouse (holding furniture and important documents from the nation’s founding, which had been moved from Philadelphia to Washington), but as laborers, who were needed to work “the docks,” streamed into the area, so too did more warehouses. And, so did alternate industries. By 1807, The Glass House, a glassworks factory, employed up to 200 men, many of whom were from Bohemia and expert glass blowers. And, a brewery was established at B Street between 21st and 23rd streets. A newly installed gasworks was also found in the neighborhood and a handful of other craftsmen shops.

By the 1850’s, the city of Washington experienced a boom. Overall population increased by 50% and real estate soared. Although, in residential terms, this greatly impacted the rest of the city, Foggy Bottom barely felt a bump. It stagnated as a popular location for residential housing. It is in this era that the term “Foggy Bottom” is believed to have come into fashion, emanating not just from the bog ‘fog’ that permeated the area but also the ‘fog’ that spewed out of the industrial sector’s compounds. Malaria was not uncommon in the neighborhood due to its swampy location. Aside from the health issues and industrial feel of Foggy Bottom, another chief complaint, and why those in Washington were hard-pressed to call the neighborhood home, was the lack of goods and services in the area. It only contained two dry goods shops – one on K Street and another on F Street – and residents had to leave the area for important staples. And, while moving about was easier throughout the rest of the city, Foggy Bottom had no direct transportation routes through the area.

There was a brief interruption to the frenetic industrial development, which arrived with the Civil War. While men went off to battle, Foggy Bottom was used to house people and livestock. A corral with wagon sheds, stables and fences was built between 21st and 22nd streets. Camp Fry, with its impressive barracks, was constructed on 23rd Street directly south of Washington Circle. While Foggy Bottom earned a patriotic seal of approval during the war, from a residential aspect, it fell into decline. Lower middle-class and the poor lived in Foggy Bottom, due to cheap rents and the proximity of their workplaces. Germans, Irish, Italians and newly freed African Americans created the diverse neighborhood and supplied the local industries with their workforces. And, even more industries were added to the Foggy Bottom portfolio. A paving company, which worked on every major thoroughfare in the District, incorporated in the neighborhood. The Gasworks expanded further. Two lime kilns on 27th Street started their operations, which converted lime into plaster for the developing city. More breweries complimented the mix.

Soon, ethnic communities created a patchwork throughout the area. South of Virginia Avenue on 23rd Street, a section of Foggy Bottom known as “Connaught Row” developed. The community had their own baseball team (the Emerald AC) and football team (the Irish Eleven.) Most of the men in the section worked in the gasworks, which fell into the boundaries of their ghetto. The Germans, on the other hand, supplied the breweries of the area with their workforces. German was the official language here as they proudly displayed their German traditions. These communities generally did not intermingle or mix. Unfortunately, what knew no boundaries were the unsanitary and unsafe housing conditions that they all shared.

The development of Back Alley Houses lit the neighborhood like kindling to a fire. These houses, which had neither plumbing nor electricity, populated the neighborhood’s alleyways, housing dozens of immigrants at once. The living conditions were amongst the poorest in the District of Columbia. Some residents lived practically in squalor. They were neither zoned nor protected. This remained so nearly into the middle of the 20th century.

The 20th century fostered dynamic changes in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. In 1926, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission was established with their self-imposed goal of protecting Rock Creek from further encroachment. They also announced plans to extend the National Mall. Both of these projects would leave indelible marks on the area as the neighborhood’s ambiance changed from industrial to pastoral within a few decades.

As the NCPPC toiled away at beautification, in 1950, the District of Columbia moved in to eliminate the slums that had pervaded the neighborhood for nearly a century. Although, the area was still a low-income residential and industrial area, the city tore buildings down, modified codes and removed ‘slumlords.’ As the neighborhood’s industries began to falter or otherwise move away (in 1947, Washington Gasworks vacated) new buildings and residences took their place. Within five years, nearly 300 buildings were renovated (with the help of public funds) through the Foggy Bottom Restoration Association. And, over the next twenty years, rapid, high-end development ensued to create what is now one of the most expensive real estate sectors in the District of Columbia.

But, it wasn’t just housing on which the city focused. In 1947 the Department of State moved into the area and caused a radical change in the daily population, bringing office commuters to the neighborhood. Other major projects were developed, such as the Roosevelt Bridge, the K Street Expressway (Whitehurst) the Watergate complex (1965) and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1971.) Soon, Foggy Bottom was seen as an important neighborhood with different contributions to the makeup of city-life. And, the area diversified.

When speaking of Foggy Bottom, it is important to mention the role that The George Washington University played in its development. When the university relocated from its former location in Columbia Heights (1912), it found itself in a precarious situation. The area east of 23rd Street was a stable neighborhood, populated primarily by those in the military and government employees. The area west and south of 23rd Street (Foggy Bottom proper) lay in abject poverty. The administration soon found itself at odds with both sides as they acted as a wedge between the two communities. As the university bought and developed lands, outcries surrounded the campus. Between 1927-1959, the university built 9 large structures (including dormitories, classrooms, offices, a library and auditorium.) The population shifted to young (and older) academics. When the District of Columbia sought to build another hospital, it was the university that worked with the federal government to build a new facility on Washington Circle between 22nd and 23rd streets. This, in turn, increased the popularity of the neighborhood. As the stature of the university increased, so too did the allure of the neighborhood. The Foggy Bottom of today is unrecognizable from that of its past.

The bustle of the gasworks and glassworks has been replaced with students who are found sitting on benches and studying in GWU’s quad or local cafes such as Au Bon Pain. Back alley houses have been replaced by high-rise condominiums. The former wharves are now part of the National Mall. And, the residential population is now a dynamic, diverse component of the city.

The neighborhood offers convenience to its residents. The Foggy Bottom/GWU metro stop and the Circulator bus provide residents with easy transportation choices. A Whole Foods on GWU’s campus (the only Whole Foods on a university campus in the United States) is always jam packed with students, staff from local government agencies, Inter-Monetary Fund and World Bank, among others. The easy access to Georgetown, Dupont Circle and downtown make the neighborhood attractive, as does its proximity to the National Mall.

Some of the best dining in the city lies within the confines of Foggy Bottom. Kinkead’s, Founding Fathers, Rivers at the Watergate and Primi Piatti offer choices from seafood to American, to Cajun to Italian. Lindy’s is still a local favorite and serves up perfect, greasy burgers. The area is chock-a-block full of faster food and offers spots such as Cosi and Caribou Coffee. And, of course, many Starbucks are found here.

While there are many diverse neighborhoods in Washington, Foggy Bottom is one of the most colorful. Blending world-class institutions such as The Kennedy Center and The George Washington University with areas such as the National Mall and adding buzz from agencies like the State Department creates a dynamic area. Additions such as the new GWU hospital and Whole Foods, combined with the standbys like the Watergate and Washington Circle reflect both new and old. The townhouses and condominiums stand side-by-side lining the quiet Foggy Bottom streets.

Just north of Foggy Bottom is another dynamic neighborhood of the District. Although, The West End, is sometimes referred to as Foggy Bottom, it does retain its own specific boundaries (K Street to the south, Rock Creek Park to the west and north, and New Hampshire Avenue and 21st Street to the east.) In fact, The West End received its name from Pierre L’Enfant himself. It is the westernmost part of his original plan for the city of Washington, before the annexation of Georgetown.

The history of this area is quite similar to that of Foggy Bottom. Warehouses dominated the streets of yore. African-Americans mostly created the population. And, the area was used for much industrial “storage.” It was also the home of the Columbia Hospital for Women. Originally opening in 1866 as a health-care facility for wives and widows of Civil War soldiers, it moved in 1870 from Thomas Circle to 2425 L Street. The hospital stayed at this location until 2002, when it was closed and converted into the Columbia Residences condominium building.

But, the Columbia Residences, aren’t the only new and gleaming buildings in the area. The Ritz-Carlton moved into the neighborhood to join the Westin and The Park Hyatt, which for decades had hosted visiting diplomats and celebrities. The re-development of The West End has been significant.

In 2007, a controversy brewed over the last remaining “underdeveloped” parcel of land, known as Square 37. Bordered by 23rd Street, 24th Street, L Street, and an alleyway and comprised of low-rise buildings dating back to the 1800’s, Square 37 stood out amid new luxury highrises. It was home to the Tiverton, the last remaining rent-controlled apartment building in the West End. The Tiverton tenants gained media attention for successfully battling two upzoning attempts by developers in an effort to maintain the square as-is. But, their cause failed. The DC Council passed controversial emergency legislation on July 10, 2007 to sell the West End public library branch and the DC Special Operations Police Station to the developer Eastbanc.

Both Foggy Bottom and The West End are rich in history and thorough in modernization. It is a small wonder that these neighborhoods are among the best placed and most interesting areas of the city.

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