Southwest Waterfront is a residential neighborhood in Southwest Washington, D.C., and one of the only two reisdential neighborhoods in the Southwest quadrant. This neighborhood was a part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original city plans and includes some of the oldest buildings in the city, including the Wheat Row block of townhouses, built in 1793, and Fort McNair, which was established in 1791 as “the U.S. Arsenal at Greenleaf Point.”
After the Civil War, the Southwest Waterfront became a neighborhood for the poorer classes of Washingtonians. The neighborhood was divided in half by Fourth Street SW, then known as 41⁄2 Street; Scottish, Irish, German, and eastern European immigrants lived west of 41⁄2 Street, while freed blacks lived to the east. Each half was centered on religious establishments: St. Dominic’s Catholic Church and Temple Beth Israel on the west, and Friendship Baptist Church on the east. Interestingly, each half of the neighborhood was the childhood residence of a future American musical star — Al Jolson lived on 41⁄2 Street for a time, and Marvin Gaye was born in a tenement on First Street.
The Waterfront developed into a quite contradictory area: it had a thriving commercial district with grocery stores, shops, a movie theater, as well as a few large and elaborate houses. However, most of the neighborhood was a very poor shantytown of tenements, shacks, and even tents. These places, some of them in the shadow of the Capitol, were frequent subjects of photographs that were published with captions like, “The Washington that tourists never see.”
The heart of the urban renewal of the Southwest Waterfront was Waterside Mall, a small shopping center/office complex mostly occupied by a Safeway grocery store and satellite offices for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Arena Stage was built a block west of the Mall, and a number of hotels and restaurants were built on the riverfront to attract tourists. The now closed Southeastern University, a very small college that had been chartered in 1937, also established itself as an important institution in the area.
Starting around 2003, the Southwest Waterfront began gentrifying. A number of the neighborhood’s apartment buildings began extensive renovations and condominium conversions. Residential and commercial developers began to take a more serious interest in Southwest with the announcement in 2004 that the city would build the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium just across South Capitol Street from Southwest. The Southwest Waterfront has now been earmarked as the site of the next wave of DC redevelopment. Large development projects currently underway or in the planning stage include Waterfront Station, a mixed retail-commercial-residential development at Fourth & M Streets SW; the expansion and redesign of Arena Stage; and the radical redesign and overhaul of the waterfront itself, to include residences, office space, hotels, and retail establishments.
Current residents include House Representative John Conyers and former Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, Hubert Humphrey lived there while serving as U.S. Vice President, and Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, and David Souter all had homes in Southwest during their tenures on the United States Supreme Court.