Visiting Washington's Original "Streetcar Suburbs" | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

Filed Under:

Visiting Washington's Original "Streetcar Suburbs"

Play associated audio
One year before the demise of streetcars, the number 40 boarded passengers at Mount Pleasant and Lamont Sts., NW. Today the 42 bus, like many modern buses, follows the old streetcar route.
Richard Kotulak
One year before the demise of streetcars, the number 40 boarded passengers at Mount Pleasant and Lamont Sts., NW. Today the 42 bus, like many modern buses, follows the old streetcar route.

Mount Pleasant, Anacostia, LeDroit Park... probably not the first names that come to mind when one thinks of the D.C. suburbs. But these three neighborhoods actually comprised the District's earliest 'burbs. They were called "streetcar suburbs," since their development stemmed from streetcar lines.

In the case of Mount Pleasant, the streetcar transformed the community from a sleepy village to a bustling neighborhood. Local historian and writer Mara Cherkasky says the electric streetcar came up 14th Street NW around 1893, but everything changed when D.C. extended 16th Street past Boundary Street, which is today's Florida Avenue.

"Starting in 1905 stores started popping up, and apartment buildings and row houses," she says. "So that streetcar coming up Mount Pleasant Street in 1903 turned this neighborhood into what it is."

Cultural Tourism DC's Chief Historian Jane Freundel Levey compares the impact of the streetcar to the impact of modern-day Metro.

"Every place where we've had a new Metro station we've had a tremendous amount of the most modern style of building," she says. "And that's what happened here in Mount Pleasant, too."

The electric streetcar had its last run in 1962. Levey says its demise was connected to the advent of the highway lobby in the 1950s.

"The government was giving huge amounts of money to build roads and the number of cars just burgeoned," Levey says. "And cars and streetcars were not very compatible. Streetcars were not maneuverable; they had to be on the tracks. Cars were zipping in and out; it got dangerous, it got very dense."

In terms of when a suburb like Mount Pleasant stopped being known as a suburb and started being known as a part of the city proper, Levey says it's hard to pick a date.

"We have generational changes in how we define a suburb," she says. "So, what was a suburb, as in Mount Pleasant, that lasted really only a short amount of time until other suburbs developed. This was a suburb that pretty quickly took on urban forms, so the next rank of suburb is a little bit farther out from Mount Pleasant, especially going up Connecticut Avenue."

Levey says suburbs were attractive in D.C.'s early days because the city was "chock-a-block with industry and commerce, and you didn't want to mix that kind of activity with where you lived."

She says that same idea is still attractive to many people today.

"There are still a lot of people who just want to have their house, their castle," she says. "They want to have land around them that belongs to them, and they don't want to have to look out the kitchen window and be able to read the newspaper of the guy sitting in the kitchen next store. There will always be people who look at it that way."


[Music: "The Trolley Song" by Joao Gilberto from Joao Gilberto - Ela E Carioca]

Photos: Streetcar Suburbs

NPR

Buzz Bissinger: With Caitlyn Jenner, 'You Feel A Connection'

NPR's Melissa Block interviews Buzz Bissinger about his profile of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair and her gender transition. She is formerly known as Bruce, an Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon.
NPR

Grass Gourmands: A Herbivore Food Mystery On The African Savanna

A new study sheds light on a longstanding ecological question: How do so many species like impalas and elephants co-exist when they're all feeding on the same limited foods?
NPR

Pro-Warren Group Disbands, As Senator Splits Again With Obama

A group pushing Elizabeth Warren to run for president moves on and "declares victory" in advancing her positions. But Warren is already on to new fights.
NPR

Senate Approves USA Freedom Act, After Amendments Fail

"It protects civil liberties and our national security," President Obama says. "I'll sign it as soon as I get it."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.