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A Monumental History of D.C. Neighborhoods

Most of the world knows the federal city side of Washington, D.C. — the Capitol Dome, the Washington Monument, the National Mall, the Smithsonian. But the city is also a collection of vibrant neighborhoods, many of them having the feel of small-town Southern communities, with front porches and neighbors who take the time to chat.

A new edition of the book “Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital,” edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith, proves this perfectly. At nearly 500 pages with hundreds of historical and contemporary photos, the book reveals a tapestry-like portrait of the city so many of us call home. It digs deeply into 26 very different neighborhoods, from Capitol Hill to Shepherd Park, from the Palisades to Barry Farm.

The first edition of the book, published in 1988, saw a very different city, long before improvements such as the revitalization brought to Chinatown with the 1997 opening of the MCI Center, now the Verizon Center. The new edition adds six neighborhoods — Barry Farm/Hillsdale, Columbia Heights, Congress Heights, Kenilworth, the Palisades and Wesley Heights — and updates the history in many other neighborhoods.

Smith, also the founding executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, said in an interview that one reason she did the book was to better define the city. “Washington has suffered from an identity crisis all its life because the federal presence is so strong,” she said. In her introduction to the book, Smith calls Washington “one of the best-known and least understood cities in the world.”

The book, along with her work with Cultural Tourism DC, is an attempt, she said, to “help the city recognize and have a better understanding of the unique identity of the place.”

That identity does come through in the many chapters. One fascinating theme is the evidence of African-American history throughout the city. The Palisades, for example, in the northwest corner of the city bordering the Potomac River, became home to an African-American community that had sprung up around Battery Kemble, a defensive station for the Union army during the Civil War. After the war, freed blacks were able to buy land there at lower rates. The Chain Bridge Road School, serving African-American students, was established, along with a church and a cemetery. Today, that cemetery, the Union Burial Society of Georgetown Cemetery, can still be seen.

A second delight of the book is its wealth of photographs, including one of the earliest photographs of Washington, taken around 1846, which shows backyards of homes along the 700 block of F Street Northwest, with their tall fences, piles of firewood and the occasional scraggly tree. The homes face the grandiose Patent Office, today the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, which seems incongruous overlooking the scrubby nest of homes and yards.

Other photographs detail parts of the city still devoid of residents, such as a 1910 photo of a flat, grassy Chevy Chase Circle with a lone streetcar and almost no homes circling what is today a busy entry point into the city, or the rural dirt road that became the busy intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Reservoir Road in the Palisades.

A more shameful history of the city shows up, too. Spring Valley was created as a development by W.C. & A.N. Miller Company, with restrictive covenants that prevented sales to African-Americans and, as “Washington at Home” notes, “any person of the Semitic races,” which included “Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, and Syrians.”

In addition, the face of the city was permanently altered after the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One photo shows a smoking and destroyed building at Seventh and N streets Northwest in Shaw, and National Guardsmen patrolling with guns.

In the big picture, though, “Washington at Home” describes a city with a long and layered past, a city filled as much with schools and shops and cemeteries as it is with classical architecture and expanses of marble.

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