Activist Recalls A Half Century Fighting For D.c.'s History (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Activist Recalls A Half Century Fighting For D.C.'s History

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, our theme is inspiration. And so far, as it happens, our quest for the inspirational has involved a lot of time on bikes and in Metro trains. Well, it turns out that our next story has a bit of a transportation thing going on, only in this case, it's a transportation thing that takes us back more than 50 years to an era when people were all about the thrill of the open road. At the time, the nation was in the midst of a big freeway building spree, kicked off by President Dwight Eisenhower.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:54
Eisenhower’s interstate freeway system gave birth to today's Capital Beltway, but the plan also called for two inner beltways that would have paved over some of the oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods in the District. And that didn't sit well with a whole lot of folks, many of whom raised their voices in protest in the 1960s. And one of them was Ann Hughes Hargrove, who went on to spend the next half century fighting to save D.C.'s old neighborhoods. Inspired by all her hard work, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office recently awarded Hargrove a lifetime achievement award. Jacob Fenston has the story.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:01:29
I'm meeting Ann Hargrove at the McDonalds on 18th Street and Columbia Road Northwest.

MS. ANN HUGHES HARGROVE

00:01:35
Are you Jacob?

FENSTON

00:01:35
Yes. Are you Ann?

HARGROVE

00:01:37
Yes.

FENSTON

00:01:37
Hi.

FENSTON

00:01:37
This fast food restaurant in Adams Morgan is unusual, no drive-thru, no roadside marquee. It's hidden inside an old arts and crafts brick mansion. McDonalds didn't buy the building out of a love of historic architecture.

HARGROVE

00:01:50
Their intention was to tear it down.

FENSTON

00:01:51
The building, designed by renowned architect Watty Wood, is still standing because Hargrove and other neighbors mounted a noisy campaign to save it. McDonalds eventually agreed to a compromise, they'd keep the building, even restoring it with brick matching the original.

HARGROVE

00:02:05
We found the brick and convinced the company to do it. It was kind of fun, actually.

FENSTON

00:02:10
Preserving a city's history is often made up of little battles like this, saving one building at a time. But there was one big fight in Hargrove's lifetime over the tangle of freeways envisioned across the District. We walk down bustling 18th Street toward Hargrove's house. She moved here in the mid-1960s and fell in love with this neighborhood of quirky businesses and old buildings. But she soon learned of the plan that would change everything.

HARGROVE

00:02:35
All of this was to be torn down. Every bit of it. I can show you the plans. It really was amazing. They just were going to tear down everything.

FENSTON

00:02:43
Hargrove’s house was built at the turn of the 20th century. The house and the whole block she lives on were slated to be razed to make way for freeway-centric urban renewal. Inside, her house is filled with stacks of papers and big rolled-up maps. The paperwork from a lifetime of historic preservation.

HARGROVE

00:03:01
A lot of this stuff is so old. I think all of this is urban renewal. And this is the land acquisition maps.

FENSTON

00:03:10
One freeway map shows the inner beltway, six lanes along New Hampshire Avenue, through Dupont Circle, then across the city along U Street. Old neighborhoods that were part of the original Federal City, neighborhoods that today are among the District’s most desirable and expensive.

HARGROVE

00:03:27
It would have removed thousands of houses, and thousands of people would have been displaced by it. So it’s a horrendous thing to think of, just in terms of the carnage of the people affected, but also it would have substantially changed the nature of the city.

FENSTON

00:03:40
In 1968, Congress authorized 38 miles of freeway within the 68 square mile District of Columbia. In a city with no representation in Congress, the plan favored suburban commuters over urban residents. That spurred anti-freeway protests across the city, bringing together black and white, rich and poor.

HARGROVE

00:04:00
Citizens organized more than I’ve ever seen citizens ever organize for any reason whatsoever. Although they were tremendously well organized, what really saved it were the court cases.

FENSTON

00:04:10
In 1970, a new freeway bridge was already being built to extend I-66 across the Potomac into Georgetown, when a court order halted construction. Officials hadn’t gotten adequate public input from residents.

HARGROVE

00:04:22
They won largely on technical grounds of that sort.

FENSTON

00:04:26
When the freeways were being discussed, I mean, it seems sort of visionary to see that this "modern way of thinking" was actually…

HARGROVE

00:04:32
Actually not. I don't think it was sophisticated at all. People thought their neighborhood was going to come down. People thought their homes were going to be lost. People thought they were going to be kicked out of where they lived. That’s what caused this. Much, much more than thinking of aesthetics. Of course there were people who do and people who all along have felt that these were neighborhoods worth preserving and keeping because they’re special. They’re nicely designed. They have good architecture and they are reflective of the history. And it's a really nice way to live.

FENSTON

00:05:01
Do you think there's an issue that analogous today to the freeways of the 1960s and '70s?

HARGROVE

00:05:08
I don't think there's anything quite analogous, but I think there is a complacency today about the world around us, that we just sort of assume things are going to continue to be like they are now. You move into a new condo in a neighborhood, and you think, well, you know, I like this place. It never occurred to them that it was a battle royal for them to be able to live here at all.

FENSTON

00:05:33
Activists didn’t win all the freeway battles. Southwest D.C. was among the earliest urban renewal projects. In the mid 1950s thousands of residents were displaced to build I-395 and the new modern neighborhoods around it. For her part, Ann Hargrove didn’t stop her work when the freeway fight ended. She's served on lots of local preservation groups, including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. And in the late 1970s, she helped draft the District’s historic preservation law, which makes it much harder to tear down historic buildings. I’m Jacob Fenston.
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