Whether for a velodrome, a bus storage lot, a soccer stadium or something else, we’ve witnessed a surge in development interest for Buzzard Point, but that belies this little understood and appreciated area. In this two-part series, we’ll explore the area’s history and current activities.
Our research indicates the name Buzzard Point dates back to Captain John Smith, the first European to explore the area in the early 1600s, who named what is now the Anacostia River “Turkey Buzzard Branch.” Turkey Buzzard Point appears on maps as early as 1635. Later activities suggest reasons why the name might have stuck:
For some time past, Health Officer Hammett has been engaged in making an investigation of this place [the rendering operations of Patrick Mann], and this morning Dr. Hammett submitted [his] report to the Commissioners: We would call your attention first to . . . [unenclosed wagons used to convey the carcasses to the company’s wharf]. Second. The place of deposit and the manner of handling the remains prior to the shipment to the factory also demands attention and the adoption of other and more sanitary methods. The place for collection is the wharf at the foot of South Capitol Street, of which we have made several inspections, to wit: July 17, 1893, we found two dead horses on scow at wharf exposed to hot sun, one much swollen and odorous; also an accumulation of bones partially covered by putrid flesh and giving off an offensive stench. July 23 we discovered five dead horses on a scow basking in hot sun, swollen and odorous. July 24 five dead horses on boat, greatly swollen and decomposing…(Evening Star – August 5, 1893)
Nomenclature aside, the area took on added importance in the turn of the 18th century when it became part of the nation’s capital. Government planners George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant envisioned the point becoming a major military fort and entryway to the city, but with the fort’s establishment at the point it displaced many commercial activities. Most of the commercial activities eventually coalesced at the 6th St wharf, several blocks upstream.
Meanwhile, aside from some secondary activities associated with the fort, Buzzard Point remained largely undeveloped. It was a fate partly dictated by its geography: marshy Potomac River bottoms bisected by the wide, swampy James Creek.
For the remainder of the century, geology continued to play a role. In an effort to improve the city’s economy, James Creek was converted into a canal. Yet, the canal quickly proved to be financially unsustainable, fell into disuse, and became an open-pit sewer. At its best, the canal served as an isolating barrier, at its worst it was a debilitating health and economic disaster to the local area.
In 1831, a penitentiary was completed north of the existing fort, further severing residential and commercial uses from the bustling 6th St wharf. One unknown observer was recorded to have said in 1850 that the area “seemed like an overgrown, tattered village which some late hurricane had scattered along the river’s edge.”
After the Civil War, Buzzard Point became more developed as freed slaves joined existing ethnic communities to form a relatively stable and ethnically-diverse population. The neighborhood contained a mix of ownership and housing types, particularly townhouse and alley dwellings. It benefited from being situated between leading military outposts and commercial ports. Roosevelt Hall, arguably the most notable extant building in Buzzard Point, was erected at the tip of Fort McNair at the turn of the century.
In 1920, the Evening Star reported that many of the city’s families could point to an ancestor who lived in the Buzzard Point area. “What is now South Washington was then all Washington, with the exception of a narrow fringe of settlement north of the [Pennsylvania] Avenue.”
Still, residential wealth and commercial vitality remained at arm’s length. By the 20th Century, the nation-wide decline in inland waterborne trade depressed the local area’s already tenuous economy.
Beginning in the 1900s, a series of mostly government-initiated projects had the ultimate effect of wiping out much of the residential community. The Washington Sanitary Housing Company, a private philanthropic corporation, undertook a series of redevelopment efforts to replace dated dwellings with “sanitary housing.” Although these periodic efforts between 1904 and 1931 replaced the older housing stock with better stock, it was racially-segregated, which worsened the widespread white-flight that urbanized areas like Southwest was facing.
In an effort to provide an economic boost, Congress changed the area’s zoning to an industrial classification in 1932. Railroad tracks from the Southeast Federal Center were extended into the area and PEPCO built a power station, but few other significant activities developed.
Efforts to replace the depressed housing with modernized units resumed in 1934 under the federal Alley Dwelling Authority and its successor, the National Capital Housing Authority. By 1958, these authorities cleared thousands of dwellings and built the James Creek Apartments and the Syphax Gardens Public Housing complex at the northern extent of the area. The vacant James Dent House is as the only remaining stand-alone dwelling in Buzzard Point.
This diminished presence belies the cultural significance of the Dent House and other current activities in Buzzard Point. We’ll explore these facets next month.
By: Kael Anderson