Streams

In Age of Streetcar, Transit (not Cars) Fueled DC Suburbs

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 12:32 PM

Undated. Streetcars running on 14th Street, NW near the District Building, now known as the John A. Wilson Building. (Courtesy of DDOT)

(Rebecca Sheir, WAMU -- Washington, D.C.) Mount Pleasant, Anacostia, LeDroit Park...all three a part of our nation's capital, are probably not the first names that come to mind when one thinks of the D.C. suburbs. But these three neighborhoods actually comprised the District's earliest 'burbs. They were called "streetcar suburbs," since their development stemmed from streetcar lines.

In the case of Mount Pleasant, the streetcar transformed the community from a sleepy village to a bustling neighborhood. Local historian and writer Mara Cherkasky says the electric streetcar came up 14th Street NW around 1893, but everything changed when D.C. extended 16th Street past Boundary Street, which is today's Florida Avenue.

"Starting in 1905 stores started popping up, and apartment buildings and row houses," she says. "So that streetcar coming up Mount Pleasant Street in 1903 turned this neighborhood into what it is."

Cultural Tourism DC's Chief Historian Jane Freundel Levey compares the impact of the streetcar to the impact of modern-day Metro.

"Every place where we've had a new Metro station we've had a tremendous amount of the most modern style of building," she says. "And that's what happened here in Mount Pleasant, too."

The electric streetcar had its last run in 1962. Levey says its demise was connected to the advent of the highway lobby in the 1950s.

"The government was giving huge amounts of money to build roads and the number of cars just burgeoned," Levey says. "And cars and streetcars were not very compatible. Streetcars were not maneuverable; they had to be on the tracks. Cars were zipping in and out; it got dangerous, it got very dense."

In terms of when a suburb like Mount Pleasant stopped being known as a suburb and started being known as a part of the city proper, Levey says it's hard to pick a date.

"We have generational changes in how we define a suburb," she says. "So, what was a suburb, as in Mount Pleasant, that lasted really only a short amount of time until other suburbs developed. This was a suburb that pretty quickly took on urban forms, so the next rank of suburb is a little bit farther out from Mount Pleasant, especially going up Connecticut Avenue."

Levey says suburbs were attractive in D.C.'s early days because the city was "chock-a-block with industry and commerce, and you didn't want to mix that kind of activity with where you lived."

She says that same idea is still attractive to many people today.

"There are still a lot of people who just want to have their house, their castle," she says. "They want to have land around them that belongs to them, and they don't want to have to look out the kitchen window and be able to read the newspaper of the guy sitting in the kitchen next store. There will always be people who look at it that way."

Washington D.C. is looking to revive a streetcar line by the summer of 2013, though not for the suburbs.

The audio version of this story at WAMU has additional information, gripping voices, and sounds like a trip back in time for a streetcar ride. Listen

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Comments [1]

Matthias

“They want to have land around them that belongs to them, and they don’t want to have to look out the kitchen window and be able to read the newspaper of the guy sitting in the kitchen next store (sic).”

Her anti-urban bias comes through. There are still a lot of people (a growing number, in fact) who don't want vapid space all around, who don't want to drive miles to find a grocery store, who see the advantages of urban living for its sustainability and stimulation. Streetcar suburbs, with their proximity and urban character, fit that bill for a lot of people.

Aug. 23 2012 11:53 AM

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