Before our nation’s capital was founded, Georgetown alone occupied the eastern bank of the Potomac River. Today it is the oldest of the District of Columbia’s neighborhoods. Because of its separate history, its streets and buildings have been more carefully preserved—including its small streets. As in other 18th century American towns and cities, Georgetown housed its working class families in rowhouses on small streets.
Today Georgetown has become so desirable that even the houses on small streets are valued at $500k and above, demonstrating both the overwhelming shortage for small rowhouses in safe and walkable neighborhoods and the need for more affordable housing in similar Washington neighborhoods. The residents of Georgetown’s small streets show great pride in their compact, unique urban environments and take meticulous care of their homes. Unlike the small streets in Baltimore, some of those in Georgetown accommodate street parking.
When Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out his baroque plan for the streets of Washington, his large-block design encouraged infill in the form of mid-block alley housing. As the city grew, it created mixed-income income blocks and neighborhoods by incorporating small streets lined with small rowhouses. In the late 1800s, over 17,000 people, or eleven percent of Washington DC’s population, lived in alley housing.
Many small streets were laid in H- or T-shaped patterns inside the block (pictured at right with today’s alleys highlighted in purple), which meant that they were impractical for any through traffic. This design created an especially peaceful and traffic-free environment ideal for children living on the same small street to play together safely and for adults to make conversation without having to talk over the noise of the street. It also lead the alleys to be called “hidden” communities, and often regarded fearfully by outsiders of the largely African-American communities that lovingly called them home. Unfortunately as emergency vehicles grew, it became more difficult for them to access the small streets. This should not, of course, be interpreted as a fatal flaw of the small street in Washington DC. Emergency crews in Europe have even more challenging urban environments to navigate and do well with smaller vehicles.
The alley houses came under threat around the turn of the 20th century. Occupied at the time by the lower classes during a time before modern sanitation systems, many members of the upper class sought to demolish the small streets and associated housing. While some of this was due to sincere concern for the welfare of alley residents, much of the reform was infected with the racism, fear, and ignorance of the time in regards to the predominantly poor African-American families that lived in the “hidden” alleys.
The Federal government banned construction of houses on streets less than 30ft wide in the late 1800s, and former First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson wished for their abolition on her deathbed. In 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt convinced Congress to outlaw alley houses though failed to force all residents out by 1944 as planned. The policies of “urban renewal”, carried out from 1950 until the 1970s, demolished many of these well-built, sustainable houses. However, despite all the various government efforts to eradicate the alley houses, it was cheap (and cheaply made) suburban housing along with private conversion to garages and parking that finally killed DC alley communities. Gessford Court, pictured above, is one of the few examples of a Washington small street still standing-and quite the picturesque one at that, with small rowhouses painted many cheerful colors.
Small streets are still illegal in Washington, DC. With few exceptions, people are prohibited from living on streets less than 30 feet wide. As a result, many couples and small families find themselves priced out of living in the District. Washington is foreshadowing the trend that will soon happen in many inner-cities: median income is rising while car ownership is falling. The time is now to legalize family-oriented streets, where working families can live and their children can play in the streets without the threats of traffic.
The vast majority of desirable neighborhoods either once had residential small streets or have very deep lots that could accommodate housing. The block pictured above in Columbia Heights could be infilled with small houses to put home ownership within the reach of working families. What is now merely a service alley could be transformed into a beautiful and charming small street.
Washington, DC is currently in the process of rewriting its entire zoning code. The conditions of urban Washington have changed worlds over since 1934, when small streets were outlawed. Small streets need to be made legal again. Small Streets plans to petition the District government to act upon the housing shortage by reintroducing small streets.