River Farms to Urban Towers
—Southwest Heritage Trail —
This quiet street was once Washington's answer to New York's Lower East Side. Fourth Street, known until 1934 as a 4½ Street, and nearly Seventh Street were Southwest's shopping centers.
Around 1900 this street was the dividing line between a mostly African American community living to the east and mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities to the west. Yet black and white adults came together over life's necessities in the small shops along 4½ Street. Grocers, butchers, cobblers, and merchants supplied flour and sugar, fresh meat, clothing, and dry goods. German Jewish immigrants moved in during the Civil War, living above their small businesses. A larger wave of Eastern European Jews began arriving after 1880.
This street was the center of Jewish life in Southwest, but it was never exclusive. The Jewell Theater, showing movies to African American audiences, once sat here across from today's Amidon Elementary School. Children played together in alleys and schoolyards, and roamed to the Mall to visit the Smithsonian museums or play on the open fields.
Southwest's Jewish community produced a civic leader for the entire city, Attorney Harry S. Wender worked to make DC streets safer and to create playgrounds. In 1934, he helped bring black and white citizens together to
persuade the city to tear up the worn-out cobblestones of 4½ Street, modernize it, and re-name it Fourth Street to symbolize its shiny new image. The whole neighborhood celebrated its rehabilitation with the first integrated parade in the city's history.
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 watermen 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 www.CulturalTourismDC.org.