Rediscovering Swampoodle (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Rediscovering Swampoodle

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we're trolling around the region as we go in search of things lost and found, from piggy bowls and pigs' heads to prosthetic legs and pizza stands. But in this next story, we're gonna hear about losing and finding an entire neighborhood, specifically, the raucous and racy neighborhood of Swampoodle. Now, if you haven't heard of Swampoodle that might be because it was destroyed more than a century ago.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:37
Emily Friedman found her way back to the legendary, even notorious, streets of Swampoodle to learn why a community that technically no longer exists, is worth rediscovering.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:00:48
The tour of Swampoodle begins at the very structure that brought it to an end. So where are we and what are we doing here?

MS. KATHLEEN LANE

00:00:55
We're at Union Station, which was built in 1907. At the time that it was built, it was the largest train terminal in the world.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:02
That's Kathleen Lane, Swampoodle aficionado and for the day, my tour guide. She's a volunteer guide for Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit here in the city.

LANE

00:01:12
Before Union Station was here, there was a community of Irish immigrants called Swampoodle.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:17
D.C. was never an immigrant magnet like New York or Philadelphia, Lane says. But when the Irish fled their country during the famine of the 1840s and '50s, the U.S. government was in the midst of a hiring spree. Immigrants who ventured further down the coast went right to work building the Capitol, the post office, and many other structures that make up today's National Mall. And because they wanted to live as close to work as possible, they patched together homes and stores nearby the Capitol.

LANE

00:01:45
And it was considered to be a very down at the heels slum of Irish tenements, alleys, complete with goats and people's laundry hanging, and it was really considered kind of shameful, so close to the, the Capitol building.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:58
A reputation which, according to Lane, was certainly related to the decision to build right over it. Why is it called Swampoodle?

LANE

00:02:06
Swampoodle got its name from the Tiber Creek, that would overflow its banks during the rainy season. It turned this neighborhood into an area that was very swampy and puddly. The Irish residents who lived here kind of conjoined those two words with their Irish accents to Swampoodle.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:24
As we leave Union Station, and head east to our next stop, Lane waves her hand out in front of her, as if erasing the coffee shops and row houses on the blocks ahead. None of this, she says, used to be here.

LANE

00:02:36
The sight of -- it's currently an elementary school at the corner of Fourth and F Street, but it was the sight of Juneman's Brewery (sp?), that not only had a brewery, it had a dance hall, it had a bowling alley.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:47
As for the whole Irish-people-love-to-drink stereotype, Lane says the proliferation of drinking establishments here was only partially about the alcohol.

LANE

00:02:55
Pubs were community centers, they were kind of living rooms for the community to come together.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:01
And when people weren't getting together in pubs, they were probably in a shop along H Street.

LANE

00:03:05
That was the place where everyone came together.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:08
On H Street, you would see an Italian barbershop, a Jewish dry goods store...

LANE

00:03:12
Chinese laundries, of course, the Irish saloons and pubs.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:16
As we walk down the street, Lane points to an enormous, red brick building. It used to be known as the Little Sisters of the Poor.

LANE

00:03:23
The Little Sisters of the Poor was pretty elaborate for a building that was meant to house the indigent elderly.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:29
The building's detailed brickwork makes it perfectly suited to its second life, as a set of luxury condos. A block later, Lane stops to rest her hand on a purple row house.

LANE

00:03:39
So this is 515 H Street, which was where my Irish ancestors came, and my great-grandfather was born in this house in 1871. It looks very much the same as it would have looked in my great-grandfather's time.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:53
The Lane family lived at 515 H Street for more than 100 years. They sold the house in the 1950s, and until recently, never came back down to the neighborhood.

LANE

00:04:02
There was so much crime here. It's great to be able to come back down to H Street now, to go to Bikram yoga class across the street from my great-grandfather's house.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:09
While it's unlikely Kathleen's great-grandfather did Bikram yoga, there was one hobby they did share. They were both local historians.

LANE

00:04:16
He really kept a very detailed account, in perfect penmanship, of the everyday life of the community.

LANE

00:04:22
Lane says the ongoing revitalization of the H Street corridor is piquing curiosity about the neighborhood's past.

LANE

00:04:28
To remember the layers of history and people and communities that have lived here over time, to keep that fresh and to keep that part of the meaning and memory of what a community's all about.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:38
Even if that community technically no longer exists. I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

00:04:44
Kathleen Lane will take you on a tour of Swampoodle too. She's leading free tours in the coming weeks, so check out the links on our website to sign up. Just head over to metroconnection.org.
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