Transcripts

Visiting Washington's Original "Streetcar Suburbs"

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We move now from the suburban present to the suburban past, back to the era when D.C.'s suburbs were first sprouting up.

MS. JANE FREUNDEL LEVEY

00:00:09
The very first suburb we had in Washington was in Anacostia. It was called Union Town. Mount Pleasant, I believe, is the second one. The third one was La Drake Park.

SHEIR

00:00:19
Anacostia, Mount Pleasant, LeDroit Park. Definitely not the names that immediately spring to mind these days when we think about the D.C. burbs. But as cultural tourism D.C. chief historian Jane Freundel Levey points out, back in the late 1800s, these places were considered suburban because they were built...

LEVEY

00:00:36
Outside the limits, then, of the city. So if you can visualize downtown Washington going out to Florida Avenue, which used to be called Boundary Street, that was the original city.

SHEIR

00:00:47
And places like Union Town, Mount Pleasant and LeDroit Park are known as Streetcar suburbs because they developed in response to innovations in transportation.

LEVEY

00:00:56
Beginning with streetcars...

SHEIR

00:00:57
I met with Jane near the original end of the line of one of those streetcars which used to run up to Mount Pleasant. It was pretty cold out so we took a seat inside a sweet smelling spot on Mount Pleasant Street, Heller's Bakery.

LEVEY

00:01:09
Which is one of the oldest businesses in Mount Pleasant.

SHEIR

00:01:14
Okay.

MS. MARA CHERKASKY

00:01:14
The oldest, continuous business...

SHEIR

00:01:16
There you go.

CHERKASKY

00:01:17
...in Mount Pleasant.

LEVEY

00:01:18
Don't mess with Mara when it's Mount Pleasant.

SHEIR

00:01:21
Indeed you don't because local historian Mara Cherkasky wrote the book on Mount Pleasant and I'm not just being figurative here, her paperback "Mount Pleasant" was published in 2007. And as both she and Jane will tell you, Mount Pleasant began as its own little village with a horse drawn streetcar on 14th Street.

CHERKASKY

00:01:38
The electric streetcar came up 14th Street in 1893 or so. But in the early 1900s, the city cut 16th Street through from downtown 16th Street, used to stop at Boundary Street, Florida Avenue. They cut that through, up Meridian Hill. And in early 1903, the electric streetcar that came up Connecticut Avenue to Columbia road, that was extended and that came up to here, Mount Pleasant Street and Park Road. So starting 1905, stores started popping up and apartment buildings and row houses. So that streetcar coming up Mount Pleasant Street in 1903 turned this neighborhood into what it is.

SHEIR

00:02:26
Right.

LEVEY

00:02:26
This impact to the streetcar is the same thing that we see today with the Metro. Every place where we've had a new Metro Station, we've had a tremendous amount of the most modern style of building. And that's what happened here in Mount Pleasant too.

SHEIR

00:02:40
But unlike Metro Station, which you build them and they pretty much stay, the streetcar obviously disappeared. When did that happen and what happened here when that happened?

LEVEY

00:02:48
The streetcar had its last run in 1962 and it was part of a very complicated set of circumstances which really had to do with the advent of the highway lobby in the 1950s where the government was giving huge amounts of money to build roads. And the number of cars just burgeoned. 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. Again, there were a lot of forces arrayed against the continuation of the streetcars and the demand to switch over the buses which were considered more modern and more flexible forms of transportation.

SHEIR

00:03:36
Was there a clear point when Mount Pleasant stopped being considered a suburb and people really thought of it as part of the city?

LEVEY

00:03:43
Shall we pick a year, Mara? I think that what you need to remember is that we have generational changes in how we define a suburb. So what was a suburb as in Mount Pleasant, that lasted really, only, a short amount of time until other suburbs developed. So this was a suburb, it pretty quickly took on urban forms in terms of the housing and the fact that they were row houses and it was fairly dense and apartment buildings. So the next rank of suburb is a little bit farther out from Mount Pleasant. So if you can visualize going North from here, I mean, especially going up Connecticut Avenue, you get into a different style of suburb.

SHEIR

00:04:23
And obviously, the D.C. suburbs kept expanding outward and outward and now they're an essential part of what this region is. Why do you think the idea, the concept, of the suburb is such an enduring thing?

LEVEY

00:04:36
The reason we have suburbs is because we had cities. We had cities that were chockablock with industry and commerce and sometimes chickens and pigs in the streets. And the idea that you didn't want to mix that kind of activity with where you lived is sort of the foundation of the suburban style and the suburban thought. And when you consider the reasons that suburbs developed to begin with, a lot of those reasons still pertain for people.

LEVEY

00:05:08
There are still a lot of people who just want to have their house, that's their castle. 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 as somebody said the other day, be able to read the newspaper of the guy sitting in the kitchen next door. There will always be people who look at it that way.

SHEIR

00:05:26
Well, Mara, Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today here in Mount Pleasant.

LEVEY

00:05:32
Our pleasure.

CHERKASKY

00:05:33
Enjoyed it. Thank you.

SHEIR

00:05:35
That was writer and historian Mara Cherkasky and cultural Tourism D.C. chief historian Jane Freundel Levey. To see photos of the old Mount Pleasant streetcar, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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