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The History Of Downtown DC

This is the 10th installment of Bisnow and United Bank's Neighborhood Guide series. In previous editions, we've covered neighborhoods as far out as Loudoun and Howard counties, to slices of DC life like the Southeast Riverfront and Shaw/Mt. Vernon Triangle. Today, we look at the beating heart of our region: Downtown DC. For a map of where we've covered so far, and what's coming next, click here.


Local histories rarely align perfectly with the national grand narrative of events. 1849, for example, is ingrained in the American imagination as the year of the California Gold Rush, but consult the histories of, say, towns in Maine, and you're unlikely to be reading about boomtowns or immigrants from Asia. While it would be too much to say the history of downtown DC is the history of America, the distance between the national and the local narratives narrows with proximity to a country's seat of government. So next time the famously maligned "Beltway Bubble" has you feeling claustrophobic, remember that more roads in American history lead back here than just about anywhere else.

The area didn't always occupy such a central place in the national life, however. Until the area was chosen as the site of the new nation's capital in 1790—the first of many hard-fought compromises struck between North and South—the area was all subtropical riverlands (not the swamp anyone trying to make a political point would have you believe). George Washington appointed French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant to design the city, and the city's grid layout and wide, Parisian-style boulevards are his enduring legacy. 

But it was almost destroyed before it could properly come into its own. The British burned much of the District, along with the recently completed White House, during the War of 1812. It was rebuilt, but even decades after its restoration, the city remained quite small, especially relative to its significance as the nation's capital. 

Other than perhaps the New Deal and World War II, the Civil War and Reconstruction did more to enlarge the national government than any other development in American history. The biggest population increase the District saw as a result of the Civil War stemmed from legislation that liberated slaves nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The capital thus became the first, and quickly the largest, hub for freed slaves, initiating a roughly century-long black migration to the first truly free city in America. Ever since that moment, DC and nearby Prince George's County have been centers of African-American culture and commerce. 

L'Enfant's original design for the city was actually never fully realized until the completion of the McMillan Plan in 1901. At the heart of that project was a redesign and expansion of the National Mall, widely considered the "crown jewel" of the capital. 

The city's history, and that of the whole nation, only becomes more deeply intertwined as we approach contemporary times. The New Deal created the city's prevailing "alphabet soup" of government offices, and World War II originated the "military-industrial complex.

Today, the city remains the epicenter of change and controversy in American political life. In March 2010, the District became the first jurisdiction in the United States below the Mason–Dixon Line to allow same-sex couples to marry. In November 2014, DC voters approved Initiative 71, which legalized the possession of limited amounts of marijuana for personal use.