River Farms to Urban Towers
—Southwest Heritage Trail —
Al Jolson, star of the first "talking" movie, The Jazz Singer
, grew up as Asa Yoelson at 713 4½ Street (once near this sign). The Yoelsons arrived from Lithuania in 1880. Asa's father Rabbi Moses Yoelson served as cantor and schochet (ritual butcher) for Talmud Torah Congregation nearby at Fourth and E. Here young Asa soaked up the African American speech and music that contributed to his later stardom. After The Jazz Singer
thrilled the world as the first "talking" picture, Jolson moved his family uptown to Adams Morgan. Meanwhile the family of Rabbi Arthur Rosen moved into 713.
One block to your right, John T. Rhines ran a successful funeral home serving the African American community from 1906 until his death in 1946. A civic leader, Rhines presided over the Southwest Civic Association. Though childless, Rhines led the nearby Anthony Bowen School PTA and was popularly known as the "Mayor of Southwest."
Across Fourth Street was Schneider's Hardware, owned in 1949 by Goldie Schneider. She was one of many Southwesters who fought the planned demolition when Congress passed urban renewal in 1945. Southwesters argued that few of the displaced black residents would be able to afford future rents. Businessmen saw their livelihoods vanishing. So Schneider and fellow store owner
Max R. Morris sued all the way to the Supreme Court. IN 1954 they lost when the Court unanimously ruled that the Redevelopment Land Agency could take (and destroy) private buildings and businesses in order to improve an overall neighborhood. Demolition was allowed to proceed.
From 1800 until 1950, Southwest was Washington's largest working-class, waterfront neighborhood. Then beginning in 1954, nearly all of Southwest was razed to create an entirely new city in the nation's first experiment in urban renewal. The 17 signs of River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
lead you through the Modernist buildings erected in the 1960s while marking the sites and stories—and the few remaining structures—of the neighborhood that was. Follow this trail to discover the area's first colonial settlers and the waves of immigrants drawn to jobs on the waterfront or in nearby federal government offices. Here Chesapeake Bay waterment sold oysters and fish off their boats. The once-gritty streets were childhood homes to singer Marvin Gaye and movie star Al Jolson. Later residents included Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and other legislators.
River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
, a booklet capturing the trail's highlights, is available at local businesses along the way. To learn about other DC neighborhoods, visit