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President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate freeway system gave birth to the Capital Beltway in the 1960s, but there were also two additional inner freeway loops planned that would have paved over some of the oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods in the District.
Those plans spurred huge protests in the 1960s, and inspired a whole generation of activists. One of those activists was Ann Hughes Hargrove, who went on to spend the next half century fighting to save historic buildings and neighborhoods in the city. She was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award from the D.C. Historic Preservation office.
Hargrove has spent her life fighting for old buildings and historic neighborhoods, but she says the biggest battle of her lifetime was over the tangle of freeways envisioned across the city.
Hargrove moved to Adams Morgan in the mid-1960s, and fell in love with the neighborhood of quirky businesses and old buildings. But she soon learned of the plan that would change everything.
“All of this was to be torn down. Every bit of it,” she says, walking past the busy independent businesses along 18th Street, Northwest. “It really is amazing, they were going to tear down everything.”
Hargrove’s neighborhood would have been razed to make way for freeway-centric urban renewal.
One leg of the inner freeway loop would have run along New Hampshire Avenue, through Dupont Circle, then across the city along U Street, cutting through old neighborhoods that were part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original Federal City — neighborhoods that today are among the District’s most desirable and expensive.
“It would have removed thousands of houses, and thousands of people would have been displaced by it. So it’s a horrendous thing to thing of, just in those terms alone, in terms of the carnage of the people affected, but also it would have substantially changed the nature of the city.”
In 1968, Congress authorized 38 miles of freeway within the 68 square mile District of Columbia. In a city without representation in Congress, the plan favored suburban commuters over urban residents. That spurred anti-freeway protests across the city.
“Citizens organized more than I’ve ever seen citizens ever organize for any reason whatsoever,” says Hargrove.” Although they were tremendously well organized, what really saved it were the court cases.”
In 1970, a new freeway bridge was already being built to extend Interstate 66 across the Potomac into Georgetown, when a court order halted construction, ruling officials hadn’t provided adequate public hearings for residents.
“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 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’re reflective of the history.”
Hargrove says today, there is no issue as threatening to the city’s fabric as the freeway plans of the 1960s. But she says many new residents don’t know about those fights.
“I think there’s a complacency today about the world around us, that we just 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, 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.”
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.
Ann Hargrove didn’t stop her work when the freeway fight ended. She served on lots of local preservation groups, like the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. In the late 1970s, she helped draft the District’s historic preservation law, which makes it much harder to tear down historic buildings.
[Music: "My Mind is a Freeway" by Arcade Fire from Demo 2001]