After John McNamara was killed in the Capital Gazette shooting, his wife Andrea Chamblee took it upon herself to publish his last book — a love letter to D.C. hoops: "The Capital of Basketball."
Many of us have heard the story: in the 1960s, when city planners were beginning work on the rail system, residents in Georgetown blocked a proposed metro station. They wanted (or so the story goes) to keep their neighborhood separate from the rest of the city.
But just how much of this story is based in reality? How much is fact and how much is fiction?
We explore the myth, the history of Georgetown’s relationship to the rest of the city, and talk about the realities of public transit in the historic neighborhood.
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
- Zachary Schrag Professor of History, George Mason University; author, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro” (Johns Hopkins University Press)
- Topher Mathews Writer and editor, The Georgetown Metropolitan.
- Rick Murphy Chair, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For years, many people around the city have believed that the Georgetown neighborhood does not have a Metro station due to protests by notably wealthy residents aimed at keeping the rest of the city out of the historic neighborhood. But did community members really stop Metro plans dead in their tracks? Is that story fact or fiction? Here with me to discuss it is Rick Murphy. He is the chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. Rick Murphy, thank you for joining us.
RICK MURPHYGlad to be here.
NNAMDIZachary Schrag is a history professor at George Mason University and the author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zachary, good to see you again.
ZACHARY SCHRAGGood to see you. Thanks for having me back.
NNAMDIAnd Topher Mathews is the writer and editor of the Georgetown Metropolitan. Topher, thank you for joining us.
TOPHER MATHEWSHonor to be here.
NNAMDIFirst, tell our listeners what the Georgetown Metropolitan is.
MATHEWSJust a neighborhood blog. Used to exist, about 10 years ago, lots of them. I'm about one of the only ones left. So...
NNAMDIBut the masthead said: established in 1820. Tell us about that.
MATHEWSOh, so there was originally a metropolitan newspaper in the early 1800s based in Georgetown. And when I was looking for a name, I was looking through the history, and I found it, and I said, that sounds like a good name to bring back. So, I brought it back.
NNAMDIWorks for me. For those who may be unfamiliar, what is the myth surrounding Georgetown's lack of a Metro stop?
MATHEWSSo, certainly something I've heard, I think most people have probably heard it at some point, that when they were planning Metro in the '60s and '70s, that there was some group of Georgetowners -- presumably white, rich Georgetowners -- that wanted to sort of keep the masses away from the neighborhood and used their powers of persuasion to prevent Metro from putting a station in the neighborhood. And so that's something I certainly had heard in the past, and I think a lot of people had heard that.
NNAMDIZachary, if the story about community pushback stopping the Metro from being built isn't completely true, why is there no Metro stop in Georgetown?
SCHRAGSo, there certainly was a consideration of a Metro stop. I have maps from 1963, in particular, when planners had graph paper and crayons, essentially, and could think about anything they wanted to do. But when I talked to the planners -- I did about several dozen interviews for my book in the 1990s -- they told me that their considerations for Metro were not mostly based on community opposition, at that point, so much as trying to serve commuting as best they could.
SCHRAGSo, they had a lot of commuters coming in from Virginia to the office buildings of Washington -- both the existing ones east of 15th Street and the new ones around Farragut Square, the new ones along Independence Avenue in Southwest -- and they wanted to get them there as quickly as possible. So, the fewer stations they had on the way, the quicker the trains would run.
SCHRAGOn top of that, you have a lot of problems with Georgetown. You have historic buildings protected by the 1950 Old Georgetown Act that were fragile, that were capable of, you know, damage if there had been a lot of construction there. You had a street plan that didn't really fit where Metro's curves would go. You have proximity to the river, which is complications for both building a tunnel -- that's the main reason why Rosslyn Station is so deep, with those massive escalators, because it's so close to the river. So, you would've had a real challenge, building a station close to the river on the other side.
SCHRAGAnd then, you know, on top of that, there just wasn't that much reason to serve Georgetown. It doesn't have tall buildings. It didn't have a lot of people commuting from large distances. It doesn't have apartments. What density there is is pretty spread out, and so it would not have been terribly well served by a single station at, say, Wisconsin and M.
NNAMDIBut was there a pushback from residents?
SCHRAGThere probably was, and Topher has found the 1977 Washington Post column mentioning some of the Georgetown residents who opposed a station. So, that part is true. What I think people get confused about is thinking that that was, in any way, unusual. Pretty much every residential neighborhood for which Metro was proposed or planned opposed it, and often for pretty good reasons. A Metro stop meant construction, disruption. It might mean a new parking lot serving commuters coming in. It might mean traffic. It might mean buses. It might be a rise in rents, which people didn't want.
SCHRAGAnd so you have neighborhood opposition all over the region, in Georgetown, in North Cleveland Park, in Arlington and Montgomery County, in white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Lots of neighborhoods did not want Metro to come. And the Georgetown protest, such as it was, was probably one of the least important of these many protests.
NNAMDII remember the Metro construction in my then-neighborhood in Shaw. It seemed to take so long, that all the businesses on 7th Street between S Street and R Street, between S Street and P Street, were all closed down. But look what it has bloomed since then. That's a whole other story. Were there any potential Metro stops that were shut because of community protests?
SCHRAGThere was only one station that was shut because of community protests, and this is where the myth, I think, really misleads people. It was the Oklahoma Avenue station that was planned for near what was then RFK Stadium. And that was a predominantly working-class black neighborhood, not a wealthy white neighborhood, that actually got the station cancelled.
SCHRAGAnd it's interesting how memory works. About 10 years ago, Arlington County did a documentary about Metro and other planning in Arlington. And a former Metro board member remembered that the station in Georgetown had been cancelled and the money rerouted to Virginia Square in Arlington. That makes no sense. That controversy about Virginia Square was 1971, which was the same year that the Oklahoma Avenue station was, in fact, cancelled.
SCHRAGSo, he had taken what he remembered, that a station in D.C. was cancelled -- and Virginia Square had been planned, but it was threatened with cancellation because of budget reasons. So, the money did go from a D.C. station to a Virginia station, but it wasn't a Georgetown station. It was the Oklahoma Avenue station.
NNAMDITopher, while there may not have been widespread protests against a potential Metro stop in Georgetown, there were some voices in the neighborhood who spoke out against it.
MATHEWSSo, what Zachary...
NNAMDIWho are we talking about, yeah?
MATHEWSZachary's just eluding to an article that came out, actually, literally, the day before I was born, June 30th, 1977, where Eva Hinton -- who was a legendary historical preservation leader from Georgetown Citizen Association -- had an interview with Bob Levy, or Leevy, I'm not sure...
MATHEWS...in the '70s, rather, right as the Metro was opening. And the whole story was about how Georgetowners are very happy that Metro didn't come. And she gives very, as they say, she says the quiet part loud when she says, you know, we don't want people coming to bother us. And we stopped it, and we wrote a letter in 1962. And, you know, we take full credit, and we're happy that it didn't come. And, you know, she cited the dynamite foundation issue. She also just came out and said, you know, we don't want to be like 5th Avenue. We don't want to have tons of people coming here, and we have plenty of buses, as it is.
MATHEWSAnd, actually, I was researching this to try and figure out, where did this myth come from? And, as far as I can tell, that's the beginning of it. And within a few years, you're finding articles that just cite it as absolute truth, that Georgetowners have blocked the Metro. And so I think it -- and I think Eva Hinton would take a lot of pride at that, because I think she did believe in herself that she had blocked it. So...
NNAMDIBut, if that was the case, how has the story survived these last several decades? Why have people continued to believe this myth?
MATHEWSWell, you know, there's sort of a truth to it in that, you know, Georgetown doesn't always have the best reputation for being open to people coming there, either from a question of transit or, you know, as it came out a couple years ago, there was this GroupMe app that had been started from the Business Association to...
NNAMDI(overlapping) All the messages, yeah.
MATHEWSYeah, where the -- you know, it was like pretty clear racial profiling that was being done by the businesses when interacting with the police. You know, I also recall from back in 2006, it was, there was this Alan Senitt who was this young diplomat who was really gruesomely murdered one night. And they had a community meeting at Christ Church, you know, a couple nights later, whenever it was, where the commander of the second district of MPD stood up -- and, actually, I was at this meeting -- and was trying to calm people's nerves and said, listen, something along the lines of, you know, these were three black, you know, 20-somethings or something walking around Georgetown at 2:00 in the morning.
MATHEWSAnd he even went on and said, you know, this isn't a racial thing, but, you know, it's unusual to see black people in Georgetown. Which, you know, again, is not, you know, a great attitude to be presenting out to the world. And so, I think the reason people believe the myth is that they probably have sensed some hostility over the years when visiting, and that it just makes sense that, you know, of course Georgetowners blocked it. That's what they do. So, I think that's why it has just continued all these years later.
NNAMDIOf course, I've known a lot of black students at Georgetown over the years who've been walking around that neighborhood for years. But Rick Murphy, in order for any construction to be done in this area known as Historic Georgetown, the plans must first be approved by something called the Old Georgetown Board, dating back to the 1950s. What is the Old Georgetown Board? How does it work?
MURPHYWell, the Old Georgetown Board is actually part of the Commission of Fine Arts, which was created by Congress early in the 20th Century, I believe. And then, in 1950, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act and placed historic review of construction, demolition, any changes to the exteriors of buildings in the historic district into the Commission of Fine Arts, which established the old Georgetown board, a board of three architects who get to review any application for a building permit that involves demolition or construction of anything that can be seen from a public right-of-way.
MURPHYAnd now, actually, the Old Georgetown Board and the Commission of Fine Arts don't have any specific power. What they do is advise the District of Columbia -- now the District of Columbia Regulatory Agency, the DCRA -- on whether the construction should be permitted or not.
NNAMDISo, they don't outright reject proposals.
MURPHYWell, they can. They can say, we recommend this not be done, but they don't have the power to stop the issuance of a building permit. The District could still do that. Now, traditionally, over the years, I don't know if that's ever happened, but...
MATHEWSOh, yeah. It definitely has happened.
MURPHYHas it? Okay.
MATHEWSAlso, what they do is they -- you can appeal to the mayor's agent, and, I mean, that's what's going on with the West Heating Plant right now.
MURPHY(overlapping) Yeah, the best example is the West Heating Plant, right now. You're correct, Topher.
MATHEWSYeah, so the Old Georgetown Board is not the final word, but it does take a lot to overcome it.
NNAMDIHow has the creation, Topher, of historic Georgetown affected Georgetown's current reputation?
MATHEWSSo, this is kind of an idea I've been trying to promote, that there's sort of a difference between what Georgetown historically actually was. And I think a lot of people are familiar with this, but maybe not everyone. But, you know, you go back to the early to, you know, mid-part of the 20th century, and there was a very sizeable African American population, particularly in the east side of Georgetown, sort of centered around 26th, 27th and P Street. You know, I think, at the most, it was probably about 40 percent of the neighborhood was black at certain points back then.
MATHEWSAnd so, around the same time, that historical preservation, I think the story goes that the New Dealers came in in the '30s, found Georgetown, which was kind of ramshackle at that point, started fixing it up. This is sort of in the wake of Colonial Williamsburg. This whole idea of preservation was becoming more and more popular. And they moved in and started fancying up the neighborhood and sort of invented this idea of -- as I've tried to put it out there -- as sort of capital H Historic Georgetown, as this idea of it being this very quaint and colonial sort of place. And that sort of led to the adoption of the -- well, definitely let to the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in the early '50s.
MATHEWSAnd that very much -- and that coupled with the Alley Dwelling Act from earlier decades very much contributed towards the sharp decline in the black population of Georgetown.
NNAMDIBecause it drove up real estate prices.
MATHEWSRight, right. And so, I mean, the Alley Dwelling Act, they literally -- there was an agency that could just kick you out of your home and force the people to fix it up. And then, once they fixed it up, you couldn't afford it anymore. But, yeah, and there's a fantastic book I recommend everyone read, called "Black Georgetown Remembered," where they very clearly come out and say that the Old Georgetown Act had a very bad effect on the black population in Georgetown. And there's a reason it went from 30 to 40 percent, whatever it was, down to 2 or 3 percent, whatever it is now.
MATHEWSAnd so, it's an aberration, historically, that there is not a black population in Georgetown anymore, and it has sort of come as a result of this elevation of this quaint, capital H Historic Georgetown. So, there's an irony and a sadness to that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. There's several people who would like to join the conversation, but you can, too, by calling 800-433-8850. We'll get to these calls after this short break. Do you live in Georgetown? Do you wish there were more options for getting around? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're debunking the Georgetown Metro myth and talking about transportation options in Georgetown with Topher Mathews. He's the writer and editor of the Georgetown Metropolitan. Zachary Schrage is a history professor at George Mason University and the author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." And Rick Murphy is the chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. Zachary, I think that Timothy in Vienna, Virginia has read your book. Timothy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMOTHYYeah, hey. Hi, Kojo. Hey, Zach, everybody. Yeah, I actually didn't read the whole book, but I checked out your book. I thought it was a great idea for a book. The subway is really a great society project. And the other thing -- and that's probably why it's so incredibly ugly, you know, (laugh) it's got that brutalist look. But it is kind of something. -- I remember when it opened here. And, anyway, just talk to me -- talk a little bit about the Metro and its building and why it looks so horrible, and everything like that.
NNAMDIWell, we only have about one minute for Zach to respond to that, but go ahead.
SCHRAGWhat I would say is that, a few years ago, Metro won a very prestigious award from the American Institute of Architects. And we had a show about that here with Kojo. So, I would suggest going to the Kojo archives and listening to that recording, because, as always, Kojo is the best interviewer, and really dug into that issue very well.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Timothy. Here is Susan in Silver Spring, Maryland. Susan, your turn.
SUSANHey, there. Yes. I used to live in Glover Park, first of all, which is near Georgetown, for many years. Definitely, I wanted to let you know there was a Georgetown Metro stop.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Tell us where.
SUSANWell, it was in the movies. (laugh) It was in a movie with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman called "No Way Out," a great thriller made in '87. And there was a very great and sort of famous chase scene, Kevin Costner running from these Russian spies. And those of us who lived in the area got a good chuckle out of that. We came close, but we only got a Metro stop in the movie.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for reminding us about that. Topher, back in April, there was a small campaign against the construction of a bus shelter in the area known as Historic Georgetown. What was the dispute, and what became of that bus shelter?
MATHEWSSo, this was a bus shelter at 35th Street and Dent Place Northwest, about a block south of Duke Ellington School. There was a former ANC commissioner who just opposed the creation of a bus shelter there. And she felt that there shouldn't be any bus shelters in Georgetown, in fact, sort of that there had been some agreement with the city that they wouldn't do that.
MATHEWSAnd I wrote an article where I pointed out that I think it's a terrible idea to prohibit bus shelters in Georgetown. And I kind of went into the history of it, and how the historical preservation has been really uniquely burdened on the poor residents in Georgetown in the past. And, you know, some of them -- probably descendants of them -- may even be attending Duke Ellington School.
MATHEWSSo, it ultimately actually had a wide support for the bus shelter. Rick (unintelligible)...
MURPHY(overlapping) Indeed, the impetus for the bus shelter was a resolution passed by the ANC unanimously, asking DDOT to put a bus shelter at that location, which is uniquely needed and uniquely suitable for a bus shelter. So, there really wasn't a lot of controversy about this.
NNAMDIWell, in recent years, the conversation about the best possibility of a Georgetown Metro has been renewed. We got a Tweet from Tom, who says: as an Uber driver, I can see a Metro stop in Georgetown would cut down on car volume. Zach, tell us about what those plans would entail, and if they're ever likely to happen.
SCHRAGSo, in more recent years, there has been a reconsideration of a Metro stop in Georgetown, not so much to serve Georgetown, as to relieve some of the pressure of trains between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom. Because you now have the Blue, Orange and now the Silver lines all trying to get their trains through that tunnel, and that's become a major bottleneck, and will become only worse as Metro, we hope, rebounds.
SCHRAGSo, it's not so much that planners are desperate to have a station in Georgetown. It's that they're looking for a second river crossing around that area, and could serve Georgetown on the way. Again, it's not clear that a station at Wisconsin and M would solve all the problems.
NNAMDIIndeed, would that stop necessarily be the best transportation option for the neighborhood?
SCHRAGWell, if you're trying to serve the university, you want to go further west. If you're trying to, again, pick up bus traffic, come down Wisconsin then you want to be further east. Georgetown is kind of spread out, and it's remarkable to me how we allow parking on M Street during non-rush hour periods, when that could be a much better transit corridor. So, we're allowing people to store their vehicles in, you know, what could be extremely useful transit space. So, again, I think this goes back to an understanding that the planners had in the 1960s, which is heavy transit like Metro is really good for serving particular nodes. But when you've got a more spread-out area, you may want a more linear system, whether it's a bus lane or light rail, or something along those lines.
NNAMDIRick, what is your sense? Will the neighborhood be open to the possibility of a Metro station?
MURPHYI think the neighborhood would be open to the possibility of a Metro station, indeed. Harkening back to an earlier part of the conversation, the gentrification of Georgetown was sort of the beginning of that kind of redevelopment in the District. I've been here for 20 years, and it has moved steadily west to east. And Georgetown was sort of the canary in the coal mine about that. And the result it...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Indeed, we got -- Demetria from Georgetown called to say: I'm 80 years old and a commercial property owner in Georgetown. The Georgetowners who didn't want people to come in years ago got their wish. There are so many vacancies, and the attention of the city has gone in other directions, eastward. It's ironic. I also want to endorse the circulator buses, which are free.
MURPHYThat was exactly the point I was about to make, is development has moved east. Georgetown, which used to be heavily trafficked in retail and entertainment, is not quite so much anymore. Really, the biggest issue we face on the ANC right now is empty storefronts, both on Wisconsin Avenue and on M Street. So, the neighborhood is very much aware of that as a problem, and would be in favor of things that would be likely to bring more foot traffic to the neighborhood.
NNAMDIHillary from Georgetown called to say: can the guests talk about the gondola idea as a mode of transportation in Georgetown? I think it's a bigger boondoggle than the H Street trolley, which was a disaster. The gondola idea. Who cares to jump in first? Topher.
MATHEWSSo, this is an idea that very much has come from (unintelligible). I will say that I'm for it. I think it's a great idea. Essentially, what it would do is have an aerial gondola, not like an Italian, you know, boat. But an aerial gondola like you see at, you know, ski mountains go from Rosslyn right next to the Metro station across -- basically, right next to Key Bridge, and landing somewhere around where the Exxon used to be, right there along M Street.
MATHEWSAnd it would be this sort of constant stream of gondolas, not like the one in New York that's just kind of two going back and forth, but it would be sort of just a constant stream where you walk out, get on it, and then two minutes later or however many minutes later, you'd walk out on M Street. So, that's the idea.
MATHEWSAnd I think there's sort of a built-in demand for it already in that one of the biggest demands is Georgetown University has a free bus that goes between Rosslyn and the school. And that has tens of thousands of people that they bring back and forth in these big buses every day that would immediately, you know, vanish and be replaced by gondolas floating above, in the air. It faces an enormous amount of regulatory obstacles, and I think it's a little bit of a pipe dream, but, you know, it's a dream. So...
NNAMDIHere is Dean, in Georgetown. Dean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEANOh, hi. I'm a native of Georgetown, and was here when Eva Hinton raved at my house, visiting with (word?), how she just detested the possible development of a Metro here in Georgetown. It was in the use of language you wouldn't repeat on air. (laugh)
NNAMDII guess she felt a little strongly about it, Dean. Thank you very much for your call. Here's Jane. in Wheaton. Jane, your turn.
JANEHi. Yes, hi, Kojo. I have a question in relation to I did believe the story about Georgetown not wanting the Metro and people being able to repel it. I lived in Kensington, at the time -- well, excuse me, I lived in Bethesda, when the Bethesda Metro opened, and that was very exciting. But I later lived in Kensington, and was very annoyed that there was no Metro. And I believe that that was true, so that's one of my questions, that the Kensington people didn't want it and were able to repel it.
JANEI later lived in Aspen Hill area, Glenmont, before the Glenmont Metro was built. And I was renting a house, and the basement kept flooding. And the owner of the house said, this never happened until they constructed the Metro. It was actually being constructed as I lived there, and he was sure the water table had been messed up by construction. So, I didn't know if that was true.
JANEI moved to Wheaton, because the Glenmont Metro wasn't open yet, and was so pleased to be walkable to a Metro, which I live near now. And then I just don't know if that's possible, that the construction did mess with the groundwater table.
NNAMDIWe don't have a lot of time left, but I think that was one of the considerations with the Metro coming to Georgetown, would it affect, quote-unquote "historic buildings"?
SCHRAGThat's right. So, Metro construction, whether it's tunneling or cut and cover, could be very disruptive. And, in many cases, the Transit Authority took people's houses, had to condemn them in order to build the station. And one story I just want to get in here, because it's not in the book, is that Columbia Heights, where several houses were threatened with condemnation and destruction, people stood in the street and sang, “We Will Beat Metro” to the tune of "We Shall Overcome."
SCHRAGAnd so, it's the same concern that's in Georgetown, but, obviously, the racial connotations of that are quite opposite, where these were working-class black people who had their homes and did not want to lose their homes. And they were protesting Metro every bit as urgently as the Georgetowners. So...
NNAMDIWhich is why that long ride from DuPont to Woodley Park.
SCHRAGWell, that was the National Park Service, which had even more clout than any residential neighborhood. They prevented an intermediate station at Adams Morgan or Florida and Connecticut. So, indeed, if you're looking for missed opportunities, Georgetown wouldn't be high on my list. A missing Adams Morgan station, that's something to mourn.
NNAMDIZachary Schrag: he's a history professor at George Mason University and the author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zach, always a pleasure.
NNAMDITopher Mathews is the writer and editor of the Georgetown Metropolitan. Topher, thank you for joining us.
MATHEWSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Rick Murphy is the chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. Rick, thank you.
MURPHYThank you very much.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the history of transit in Georgetown was produced by Kayla Hewitt. This is her last show for us. We will miss her terribly. We will miss her hard work even more. Our update on the dangers of blue green algae in local lakes was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, we check in with Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol about Amazon, affordable housing and flood recovery in Northern Virginia. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Vince Gray joins us to talk about violence in the District and much more. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, on the Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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