By Andrew Finken

Did you know that Walt Whitman spent time in Southwest D.C.? He observed Union soldiers at the Sixth Street Wharf during the Civil War. How about famed Army Physician Walter Reed? He furthered his revolutionary Malaria and Yellow Fever research along the marshes of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. When entertainer Al Jolson’s family came to America in 1891, his first home was on Fourth Street, SW. Decades later, soul music superstar Marvin Gaye spent his childhood years just a few blocks away in Syphax Gardens.

Such knowledge has the potential to change a place, and according to Cecille Chen Winstead, Project Director for the Southwest Heritage Project (SWHP), Southwest is home to a lot of this type of knowledge. “There are a lot of interesting stories to tell about Southwest, but there isn’t one central resource,” said Winstead. “We want to demonstrate the history of Southwest and establish that there is a definite community here that is really quite nice.”

SWHP is a committee of neighborhood residents sharing their time and talents to learn about the community they love. After collecting, organizing and digitizing neighborhood stories of past and present, the group plans to make the history viewable, by the tentative end date of April 2012, through a couple of different mediums.

The main repository for SWHP findings will be its website, www.swdcheritage.org, containing historic documents and photographs, oral histories, scholarly articles and original writing by the SWHP. The site is powered by a unique open-source, web-publishing platform called Omeka. Omeka was developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University specifically for the presentation of digital history projects.

Winstead said she is hoping to make the second resource more personalized and interactive. She envisions a mobile phone application that will reveal, based on the user’s GPS location, all of the history of that very location. Alternatively, Winstead said that a number of kiosks placed strategically throughout the neighborhood with QR codes capable of activating an application on a mobile device could accomplish that same feat.

Imagine going on a walking tour of Southwest next April. You are joining the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival, exclusive to Southwest. Or you are remembering the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, a local remembrance because of the memorial located on the Waterfront near the intersection of Fourth and P streets. As you navigate the neighborhood, you feel as if you are walking straight through history. Every tap and swipe on your mobile device reveals the memory of your present location. It might tell you that the Maine Avenue Fish Market is one of the few buildings that existed in Southwest prior to the Urban Renewal of the 1950s and ’60s, or that Thurgood Marshall used to live in a Capitol Park townhouse near the G Street Circle.

After your tour, you will have the opportunity to join any number of Southwest Heritage Month events. In addition to walking tours, SWHP is organizing film showings, cultural document exhibits and panel discussions. Winstead is planning multiple ways for people to learn about the community.

SWHP is also focusing on the future. Winstead said she believes visitors would be interested to know that there are two stylish restaurants within five minutes’ walking distance of the Waterfront Metro. She said Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian every Friday is one of the city’s best kept musical secrets, and also five minutes from the Waterfront Metro. Or that Gangplank Marina, also in Southwest, is home to the largest live-aboard community on the East Coast.

“When people or businesses come to Southwest, we want them to know they aren’t dealing
with a blank slate,” said Winstead. “Southwest is a place that has a significant past, a unique heritage and a strong and vibrant community.”

She said that with all of the recent development in the community, and the billion dollar investment coming to the Waterfront area, SWHP wants to make sure the neighborhood’s voice is a part of the conversation, and so far, all members of the committee are Southwest residents. Volunteers are organized into teams based on four skill sets: community outreach and organizing, historical research and primary data collection, digital editing and design and social media promotion and marketing.

The project is 100-percent volunteer, but SWHP received a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. in October to put toward marketing the finished project next spring. The Humanities Council offers grants to organizations seeking to promote the concept of fostering community life through the sharing of history. A relationship with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, as well as other upcoming funding opportunities, will add a small amount of additional funding for SWHP.

Winstead’s original inspiration for SWHP was her response to the large building projects that have occurred in the Southwest quadrant over the past decade and its inescapable reminiscence of the 1950s and ’60s Urban Renewal. At that time, the federal government declared eminent domain over nearly every house and every business, even all of the streets, between the National Mall and the Anacostia River.

Almost every square foot of land was razed, redesigned and then built again, and most residents were evicted in the process.

Today’s construction is significantly less intrusive, of course, but it got Winstead thinking. With billions more dollars of redevelopment on the way along the waterfront, every day that goes by will cover the past just a little bit more.

“Urban Renewal was an absolute devastation for Southwest. It displaced all of the neighborhood’s 23,000 residents, and most could not afford to return afterward,” said Winstead. “Urban Renewal gave this neighborhood a really bad name, and that name mistakenly still persists. This project has the potential to lift that veil and tell the story.”

Urban Renewal is a large caesura on the timeline of Southwest, clearly separating the landscape that fostered Walter Reed’s experiments from that which supports the Southwest Federal Center and Interstate 395. But the 1960s was also the tail end of an admired period of architectural design — the modernist movement — and much of the rebuilding that took place during Urban Renewal was under the guise of that award-winning style. Documenting the frequency and scale of modernist structures in such a small geographical location is another aim of the project.

The Robert C. Weaver and Hubert H. Humphrey federal buildings, home to the Department
of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services, respectively, and designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer, are emblematic examples of the movement. In 1966, the Tiber Island Complex, on the corner of M and Fourth streets, won an American Institute of Architects Honor Award, and it is currently under consideration for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Many other examples persist.

SWHP is nearing the end of its planning stage, but the timeline is intact and teams are beginning to form. Anyone interested in lending a hand to any of the four project divisions is welcome to contact Cecille Chen Winstead at Cecille@swdcheritage.org.

Interested parties can participate in another way, as well. Anyone who would like to add an image, a story, an article or simply share a personal experience of life in Southwest is welcome to visit www.swdcheritage.org and click on Contribute an Item.

Although the Southwest quadrant may be the city’s smallest, if Winstead has anything to say about it, it certainly will not have the smallest historical footprint.

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