The Location: From Hell's Bottom To Murder Bay To Bloodfield (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Location: From Hell's Bottom To Murder Bay To Bloodfield

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we are throwing caution to the wind and taking risks. Earlier in the show, we met show D.C. entrepreneurs who are boldly engaging in what some might call risky business. And we heard about the risks of having a super-fun site in a Baltimore neighborhood. Well, up next, we'll visit a Washington neighborhood one that technically no longer exists, but when it did, just wandering through its unpaved streets was a risky proposition. We'll find out more in this month's editions of "The Location."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:45
Where Kim Bender, author of the blog "The Location" gives us the intriguing stories behind locations around the region. In the Northwest Washington location where Kim and I met up this week...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:54
Hello.

MS. KIM BENDER

00:00:55
Hello.

SHEIR

00:00:56
...right on 13th and R doesn't just have an intriguing story...

SHEIR

00:00:59
I was hoping you would say, welcome to Hell's Bottom.

SHEIR

00:01:06
It has an intriguing name.

SHEIR

00:01:07
Why thank you. It's good to be here. Can you say it's good to be in Hell's Bottom? I don't know.

BENDER

00:01:11
Sure, especially now in 2012.

SHEIR

00:01:15
It's no longer quite as hellish or bottomish.

BENDER

00:01:17
No. It's quite a lovely neighborhood right now.

SHEIR

00:01:21
And yet back in the Civil War era when Hell's Bottom got its name, the place was anything but lovely.

BENDER

00:01:27
Hell's Bottom was an area from 7th to 14th Street Northwest and from O to Boundary. Boundary was what Florida Avenue was called. It was the edge of the city at the time and it was just filled with really poor conditions. Shanties and houses crowded with people and disease.

SHEIR

00:01:45
Not to mention a ton of liquor and crime. But Hell's Bottom wasn't the only part of D.C. that was a mess back then. And the other neighborhood names Kim dug up from a Washington Post map circa 1877 reflect that.

BENDER

00:01:56
We have my personal favorite, Blood Field, which is in Southwest. They called it South Washington in the newspaper. Bloody Hill and then not on here is Murder Bay, which we can also talk about.

SHEIR

00:02:11
So all of these names, to me, they speak to a Washington of days of yore that was, I don't know how you would say this, pretty rough.

BENDER

00:02:19
Washington was rough before, during and after the Civil War and in 1902, The Washington Post interviewed a government official. I think he was probably a cop from the way he describes things but he says Washington passed through its period of lawlessness and disorder fully as bad if not worse than that which prevailed in Cripple Creek, Colorado or Tombstone, Arizona. So between 1860 to 1870, the population doubled here. It went from 75,000 people to 150,000. So you can imagine the strain on the city's resources.

BENDER

00:02:55
The police force was recognized in 1860 and the cops who were on the beats in these different places would only go in pairs. They were afraid to go by themselves and it seemed like there was an all-out war between the people who lived in these neighborhoods and the police. So the police would arrest somebody, that person would fight back, somebody would end up dead, somebody might end up very injured. It was just...

SHEIR

00:03:17
Chaos, it sounds like.

BENDER

00:03:19
Yes. I actually read, when I was doing research about a different story, I saw that this one senator, Senator Stewart, was totally opposed to bringing a World's Fair here. He said, we are not a mature enough city to allow people in here. We need to do a lot of work on ourselves. And people were very angry, but I think he had a point.

SHEIR

00:03:41
One neighborhood we haven't really talked about very much is Murder Bay.

BENDER

00:03:44
Yes.

SHEIR

00:03:44
Where was Murder Bay?

BENDER

00:03:46
Murder Bay was east of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. There were theater and saloons and brothels and a lot of crime.

SHEIR

00:03:56
Was it kind of like a red-light district?

BENDER

00:03:57
It was like a red-light district. Then we also have other neighborhoods that aren't quite as notorious or dangerous, but just have names that we don't use anymore.

SHEIR

00:04:07
Can you share some of those names?

BENDER

00:04:08
Cowtown is a neighborhood north of Hell's Bottom, so north of where we are, north of U Street and west of 7th. The Island, which is a swathe of land south of the mall and it was called that because it was cut off from mainland D.C. with the canals and the river surrounding it. Then we have White Chapel which was described as a dirty alley between 24th and 25th Streets and M and N Streets Northwest. During the 1880s, there was an almost constant warfare there between the residents and the police.

SHEIR

00:04:41
So as we saw the city improve, granted Washington has had its rough times. We know, of course, the riots were a horrible time for the city and following that the cleanup and then there were other times when the city dealt with its share of problems but after this whole period that we're talking about with these particular names, what led the city on a straighter path?

BENDER

00:04:59
Well, I think Baw Shepherd came into power to make public improvement at the end of the 19th century. I think it had just gotten to a point where the city needed to modernize and, you know, he closed up Washington City Canal, we talked about last time. They created modernized sewer systems, they paved roads. At that point the rest of the world was improving. They were probably trying to do the same.

SHEIR

00:05:23
Catch up.

BENDER

00:05:24
Catch up. Land was regarded, gas lights were put up, trees were planted. He was trying to make D.C. less of a backwater and more of a real city.

SHEIR

00:05:35
It was the nation's capital after all.

BENDER

00:05:36
It was the nation's capital. Once the roads were paved and there were amenities, then the money came and sort of changed other parts of the city.

SHEIR

00:05:47
It's interesting, though, because not all parts of the city clearly changed the same way or at the same rate.

BENDER

00:05:52
No, it was the fashionable places that changed. The growth moved Northwest but once upon a time it was still pretty bad. I don't think you would've wanted to walk through Hell's Bottom. Even the people who lived there felt like they were fighting for their lives. That's what one resident said, one man who was quoted in 1900. I think he was reminiscing about his life in Hell's Bottom, you know, 30 or 40 years earlier and he said, a man had to fight whenever he went into the Bottom.

SHEIR

00:06:21
Kim Bender writes the blog "The Location." For a link to Kim's article about old neighborhood names and to take a look at that 1877 map, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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