Last stop: Washington D.C.! I went to see the Anacostia Flats and Foggy Bottom.
Foggy Bottom is perhaps the most famous bottom of all. The one place in urban America today named Bottom that many people would recognize. But few, I’d gather, have any clue as to where its name comes from, or anything about its history before Metro, the Kennedy Center, the State Department, and Watergate came to the neighborhood. As you might guess, if you’ve read other posts here, it’s history (natural, built, and social) is similar to other bottoms. Located south of the point where Rock Creek meets the Potomac River, it was subject to floods, developed in an ad hoc manner with industrial uses as its primary focus, and notorious in the late nineteenth century for crime and vice.
Transformed by land-filling, road construction, and mega-projects, Foggy Bottom presents a different image today. I went out in search of traces of the past: specifically, the place where Rock Creek meets the Potomac and the Foggy Bottom Historic District. Both sites felt like they were hidden in the interstices of one massive twisted tangle of roadways.
The photo above shows an alleyway in the Foggy Bottom Historic District. I chose this photo for this final post of the road trip because it represents interconnections between natural, social, and built in low places.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve started looking at (and photographing) details on the ground more often. The more I thought about these low-lying urban neighborhoods, and visited them on foot, the more I began to notice the surfaces of the ground plane: sod, asphalt, brick, concrete, gravel, stones, dirt, vegetation, or open water. In an earlier post I wrote about “the bottom of the bottom” and that’s my meaning here. If these places were defined in reputation and in physical form by flood events, then I wanted to know where the water went downhill, seeking out the lowest points, flowing through a neighborhood.
At the same time, I began looking for traces of the past or physical artifacts that might show something about development patterns and the history of the built environment. In many places, streets were torn up replaced, even erased altogether when an area was re-platted or new “super-blocks” came in. But elsewhere, a brick alleyway or a cobblestone path, an old canal, a berm alongside railroad track, a grate, or a drain signaled something from an earlier era. (Of course, these artifacts on the ground can be deceptive at times, as new systems likely underlie them.) Nevertheless, I began looking down a lot more, and following downspouts up the sides of buildings, or considering what was up the slope, looking up, too.
But one can also look at an alley with different “eyes.” Alleyways carried water and served as pathways, and they were also the “front yards” for many of the nineteenth century’s poor. In cities like Washington D.C., in particular, alley “dwellings” as they were known as the places where the poor people lived. So, while looking at an artifact of nineteenth century building practice- an alleyway separating very narrow two- and three-story rowhouses- we might think about the density of urban settlement, the location of work and home, the social ordering of “back” and “front,” scale, and other aspects of socio-spatial relationships.
And where there’s water, there’s likely to be vegetation. Volunteers, plants and trees sprouting up in these in-between places, along the edges of these paths. In an earlier era, probably horse droppings and trash, and other urban waste and detritus, too.
So here we have, at the micro scale, a kind of bottom. Built in brick, concrete, asphalt, wood, and other materials; physically constructed according to the building practices and societal understandings of its time; and conduit, a device for transporting and moving surface water, people, and supplies: the low point between the buildings. At the same time, part of an urban system of interconnected alleys and streets, blocks and neighborhoods.
This trip has made me realize how complex “Bottom” neighborhoods were, and how different they could be from one another, but it also confirmed these interrelationships- how the locations where urban creeks met rivers shaped what people decided to build, how “natural events” like floods shaped development patterns and neighborhood reputations, and how low-lying places became associated with those “at the bottom rung” or “at the bottom of society.”
Thanks to my committee members, family, and friends for your comments and support during these four weeks. Stay tuned for more observations in the coming months, as I plan the next steps towards completing the dissertation.