A Look at the Residential City of Washington

We’re pleased to announce that our colleagues from the Textual Archives Services Division at Archives I will be joining us as regular bloggers. Today’s post is written by M. Marie Maxwell, an archives specialist who works at Archives I.

Due to the unique relationship between the Federal government and the District of Columbia the National Archives holds a number of records relating to the development of the city of Washington. This is not only useful for local historians but also researchers interested in urban development.

Never judge a book by its cover or a record series by its name. For Records Regarding Alleys Considered and Not Considered for Reclamation, 1934-1957, (NAID 2794752), in Record Group 302, Records of the National Capital Housing Authority (formerly the Alley Dwelling Authority), the title does not fully describe the treasures enclosed for local historians and those interested in early public housing policy. Part of the series is a dry collection of land purchases of city parcels for public housing, streetscape changes, and maintenance of properties. However other parts give rich neighborhood descriptions, photographs, building and street diagrams, letters of complaint from housing residents and District citizens, and tables intimately describing people living in areas of agency interest.

Though a thin folder “Southwest G.I., 1934-1950” contains a lot of information summed up in one image. As part of a report submitted by a local neighborhood group, the Barney Neighborhood House, are two identical maps showing how the Southwest neighborhood in Washington, DC, a city with segregated schools and playgrounds, was also segregated by where people lived. The map key indicates where the white and African-American (referred to as “Negro” on the map) residences were, as well as commercial space, alley dwellings occupied by African-Americans, and government property with further indications of which were used by white or black persons. A  June 6th, 1935 letter from Barney Neighborhood House addressed to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and forwarded to the Alley Dwelling Authority expresses a concern about the development of the neighborhood due to the Federal government buying land in that quadrant, the smallest of the 4 quadrants in the city. This was well before the large scale demolition of housing in the Southwest neighborhood in the 50s, as part of Southwest Urban Renewal project, which eliminated the older housing stock.

From the series “Records Regarding Alleys Considered and Not Considered for Reclamation, 1934-1957” (ARC Identifier 2794752)

The voices of District residents are heard in letters and petitions forwarded or sent directly to the agency. Some complain about the conditions of alley dwellings near their own homes and some others express fears about racially segregated public housing shutting out African Americans.

Of possible interest to students of urban renewal and development is the history of the government providing housing for its citizens and the scale and hopes of each project. There are numerous housing projects erected throughout the city prior to the large development push in the middle of the 20th century. Many of the files concerning housing projects have letters and reports that go beyond just the building, they also include stated goals and hopes for the future.