His interview focuses on his early life in Southwest during the 1940s and 1950s. He expresses his strong feelings about the value of that community, especially his family, teachers, and other mentors. He remembers the “bulldozing” of Southwest and recalls being at the demolition of the first building—a neighborhood grocery store—in 1954. His insights into the inevitable evolution of cities, the way transportation affects that evolution, home rule in DC, and the desirability of development to reinvigorate neighborhoods all provide material for thoughtful contemplation.
Interview with Carl Cole
Interview Date: October 4, 2005
Interviewer: Drew Simpson
Transcriber: Drew Simpson
TAPE 1/SIDE 1
SIMPSON: Good morning.
COLE: Good morning, Drew.
SIMPSON: This is Drew Simpson interviewing Carl Cole. It’s October the 4th, 2005, for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill Oral History Project. I am interviewing Mr. Cole at his home in Southeast Washington, DC, so let’s get started. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, just a brief biography?
COLE: Well, I am one of these generational Washingtonians, was born in Washington, DC, at Freedman’s Hospital, member of the class of ’43 as we like to refer to ourselves. I was raised in Southwest Washington along the waterfront, where I resided for what, the first 20 years approximately of my life, off and on. Educated in the DC Public Schools. In the earlier days until 1954, I was Division Two, which was the Negro division of DC Public Schools. Attended early schools in Southwest, at Smallwood, S.J. Boyne, and Jefferson Junior High School, and then later years Eastern High School. Mainly worked here in Washington, mostly principal education here in Washington, have traveled, come from an extremely large family, with tons of relatives—a number of whom still live in the Capitol Hill area.
SIMPSON: One of the things, could you speak a little bit more about your early life and about your family, and what growing up in Southwest was like?
COLE: Well my early life was to me, as I recant it today … fascinating. It’s like early lives of all, I would hope, who grew up here in Washington. When you are born in an area where you can turn in any one direction and touch history, it’s a fantastic thing to have around you. And the area of Southwest that I was raised in, it was right off of the waterfront—we had steamships still operating at that time which still fascinate me until this day. We had a military fort, Fort McNair, in lower south Washington off of N and O Street. When I was younger, things here were pretty much segregated. However, to children, those are adult rules. We played pretty much with whomever we chose to play with at that time, and as a matter of fact, my playmates consisted of a mixture of whoever was available, the rule being if we needed a ninth man for a baseball game, and you were the ninth man, you couldn’t opt out because you were Jewish, white, or Catholic or any of this stuff; didn’t work.
My educational experience in my earlier years here was fantastic. During the days of segregation, most of the black schools were peopled by no less than the equivalent of what we would call college professors today. Black educators at the time, if you wanted to teach school, even elementary school, you would be required to bring no less than one degree, and more than likely two. More importantly, you could not just bring a degree in education; they expected you to have certain disciplines. So let’s say when I was taught music, by a gentlemen named Mr. Glass or Miss Hamlin, I was being taught by music professors; people in most cases who were mastered or PhDs in their specific fields.
Recreationally, things were just fantastic there in Southwest, at least to me they were. We had the Police Boys Club, and though we had the segregated recreational system, I played and attended recreational programs at a place called Randall Playground right off South Capitol and I Street today. We had a lady there named Miss Lola LaBrent. Miss LaBrent was probably one of the most creative minded people I will ever have known in my life. Who in a sick system that was segregated, which only afforded black recreational centers a box that was roughly a cube—it may be three yards by three yards cubed, and all of the recreational equipment for that center was maintained in there, and when I say recreational equipment, I mean not only bats and balls, but pens, pencils, palettes, paintbrushes, watercolors and so on. But she employed these things in such a unique way. My early introduction to drama came about because of Miss Lola LaBrent. And she would train us in certain aspects of drama; she would also work with us in our early stages and areas of art. And, it was really, really, a fascinating way to be raised—even though it was segregated. I still, I have to be candid, and maybe I should qualify this interview before that, I am one of those people who still question the value of integration—I always will. But that’s part of it.
Then the other thing I had recreationally growing up was the Police Boys Club system, here again was segregated. But it was an excellent system. Police officers worked in the clubs. Most of the non-police officials that were there were college educated men, Mr. Jabbo, Kenna William Boyd, Dr. Green and others who worked with youth and taught us a number of things. That helped me considerably in the formation of my life, my idea and appreciation for a number of things; my love for literature, my love for art, music, what have you. So, to me, it was a fascinating area to grow up in. I know others in this late day have suggested that I grew up in the world’s most notorious—I think that’s the term that they use—world’s most notorious slum. When I reflect back on it, and my brothers and I have discussed this at great length, we think we probably grew up in one of the finest communities in the world that existed at that time.
SIMPSON: And there is, when you look at the historical literature, there is a real dichotomy between the experiences of people that grew up in Southwest, and what’s written about Southwest. Could you tell me a little about the neighborhood, what it was like not only in terms of actual physical structures, but in terms of interactions with various people?
COLE: Well yes, I lived in the 300 block of I Street SW—342 exactly was my address. I was surrounded by common everyday workers, but also by doctors, lawyers, educators, and the like. So it was a really much broader experience than what people hear about today. I grew up in a very cohesive neighborhood. And the best example of that is my best buddy, and even though we in recent years because of traveling and other time commitments don’t see each other as much, is still a young man that came out of diapers with me, and as a matter of fact, most of the people that I value most in my life are those that framed my life when I was a child in Southwest; both within my peer group and older members of the community. It was a sharing experience, there was always someone there to answer a question. If they couldn’t answer it then to direct you in a way in which it could be answered.
My family was very Protestant, save for me, who always believed that I would be Catholic, and I am Catholic, much to the chagrin of my family, still after so many years. But even with that, the church communities played a very important role in lives there in Southwest. So much of what I hear people talking about replicating today as a way of addressing some of our youth issues, were things that we did in Southwest years ago. There was a sense of community. There were art shows, there were dances, there were football games. And all of the things that you hear people talking about, there were community parades. Always in June, there was the Children’s Day Parade, which was a fantastic event where the Protestant Churches—those kids would dress up in white and parade though the neighborhoods and so on with their parents. Then we had the annual homecoming game, which was an event centered around the Police Boys Club. The Southwest club, which was the name for the colored club that was there in the 400 block of I Street. We had an annual event, which included a homecoming day and queens and selections, and all of this type of thing. So really it was a small town type of feeling to all of that.
We knew the merchants, grocers, we knew the policemen on the beat; we knew the firemen. Another one of the people that I admire so much today—gentleman by the name of Burton Johnson, who eventually became the first African fire chief here in Washington. I still remember meeting him in my childhood when he was just a basic lineman and suppression guy with the old Engine Company 7 that was at—what—347 K Street SW. So that was the kind of community.
My family was extremely large; I am originally one of 13. My grandmother lived with us. My natural father passed when I was four; by the time that I was six my stepfather was in my life. And I will talk about him later because he was such a fascinating guy. My grandmother taught school for a while here, for a number of years, and retired, and then went back, I think. And my mother had always, of course, as so many women of the day, was a basic home keeper and housewife—who occasionally worked out, and like so many of the African American women in those days regardless of education. I recall her at one time doing days work, but beyond that she was basically home. My brothers and sisters were as my Mom used to say the ‘normal crazy children.’ You know. They all went out, raised families, got jobs, went to school. My late older brother George was actually director of the Police Boys Club before he passed in 1980. He was a gold medalist boxer, in the Golden Gloves, and then on the French International Team here. So just a basic normal family, brothers and sisters who worked, made a living, raised their families and so on. We like to think of it as nothing unique, we did what people of our day did.
SIMPSON: You talk about the church community and the role that the church played in Southwest. Could you elaborate on that a little more?
COLE: Well, in all communities, not just in Southwest, but, here in America church communities have always played very critical roles not only in the formation of communities, but also in the activities, the moral values, because churches at one point in our history served as our, not only as our spiritual nourishment, they were sometimes used as our entertainment, because of the concerts and contatas they will have. They were educational; you had Sunday school which for children who were learning how to read was a great tool. You just had a host of activities that went on throughout the year, Christmas programs, Easter pageants, and so forth. And as a result of that you had quite a cohesive group.
And as a matter of fact, if I am not pulled away from this interview this morning, for other reasons as soon as you’re finished, I am meeting with a gentleman named Norman Rowsey. Norman is older than I, but we are examining an old photograph of people that was taken at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church which was at Third and L Street SW. We believe it was taken about 60 some years ago and we have identified all the people in there. Interesting enough, Norman’s grandparents, and my great, great, I think, great grandparents were friends. So those are the associations that you have through churches. And to some of the more established churches that tradition still carries true, up until today. You can go in a lot of the both in the Protestant churches or the Catholic parishes and you will find generational families who have been associated in one way or another for decades if not generations. So that was the forming thing about churches in all communities, not just Southwest but throughout the city.
SIMPSON: Moving to 1945, 1950, the beginnings of the urban renewal. How did you hear about that process, how did that process begin in the neighborhood?
COLE: Well actually, from all the historical documents that I have read, urban renewal did not begin in Southwest. As late as the 1800s—first of all let’s talk about my present day thing. I’m a member of the board of this newly created Anacostia Waterfront Corporation. And one of the things, questions, that is asked of me is just questions similar to that, but only as it relates to Anacostia. Eastern development in Washington has long been sought after since the creation of the city itself. It initially was thought this [east of the river] is where the embassies and chanceries would be because it was so aesthetic, the hillsides, the bluffs, and so on.
Then in the late 1800s, after the area had been established, there was actually some discussion about developing this section of Washington. It never came to fruition. Then they looked for other areas, of course Southwest which had disproportionate ratio with respect to ownership and occupancy, a lot of rental property there. That then, not necessarily became the target, but that was more appealing for developers to look at. I must qualify it by saying, I, number one, do not believe that it was a scheme by ‘the man’ to evict any ethnicity or race group from the area, it was just an idea of something new, planners were really flexing muscles then and showing people that they could do the things that came out of the 1938 World’s Fair, that we could develop these urban centers with people moving about, and blah, blah, blah, and so on.
When I first became [aware of] urban renewal, and I always remember it is when people were coming around taking a lot of pictures when I was a young man. My family, as were a number of families in that area, were very active civically, in all aspects of the community. My grandmother was a member of the civic association there; she belonged to I don’t know how many different organizations. So we, in hearing the discussions were pretty much apprised—didn’t understand it fully from a child’s perspective, but we knew something was changing. The reasons often given in present day literature is that it was the world’s most deplorable slum. But it’s interesting, it was no different than Northwest Washington, Georgetown, or any other section—it had its pockets of poverty. When you go back to the old Division Two, the Colored division of the DC Public Schools, and you look at the test scores of the California Standard, I think is what they were using then, you will find that there is no disparity between the scores of the young people there and throughout the rest of the city. When you go back and you look at the crime statistics, which I have done repeatedly to make sure that I’m not enhancing things [chuckles] in my older years, to see, well was crime really a problem? It’s not reflected in the statistics. When I look at overall housing stock, it’s not really there. So you say, OK, this was just an opportunity for developers to do certain things and they did.
Now having said that, there was a lot of testimony in Congressional Records prior to the beginning of redevelopment and initially it was never the intent or the desire of Congress to bulldoze this entire area. That is another big misnomer. I can’t recite the exact pages but in the year of the Congressional Records, but if you research them you would find testimony where Congress would say to them—which was the National Housing Authority, I think, Federal Housing Authority, that, you know, this is not what we want to do. And of course, bureaucrats being what they are, and knowing only to do what bureaucrats would do, insist ‘well look, I’m sorry, we don’t know how to go in and surgically redevelop parts of a standing community. We are better equipped to just bulldoze …’
SIMPSON: And I’ve got some exhibits from the 1950 Capitol Plan of land usage before 1948 and land usage after the plan.
COLE: Sure … uh huh. Yes, I’ve seen these before. [long pause]
SIMPSON: Getting back to what you were saying about, spot redevelopment.
COLE: Well, they just couldn’t do it. They thought it would be best to just go in and bulldoze the entire area and start over, anew. In other words, they were going to build an entirely new town within a town is what they set out to do, and as we all know now that entire process was ill fated from number one. Number one, there was never a general comprehensive plan for the entire area. The area was segmented in sections. I think it was C, B, D and A, I would want to call them. I lived off of area C and there was sort of a dividing line there [gestures to map.] They did begin some demolition there, they did displace a number of people, but it was so poorly conceived and planned that one of the responsibilities today of the new city government and the new administrations is how do we go back and correct a lot of this? How do we build a living community where people are not isolated and everything, where they have total access to all of the amenities that exist there? How do they have access to a fantastic waterfront that is there, which we did when I was a child? So it fell far short of its mark, and as a matter of fact, immediately after the debacle of the Southwest redevelopment, major urban centers throughout the country halted their programs, to say, “No this is not the way that we want to go.” This was insane, we have open fields, and as a matter of fact there are still parcels—the first building was demolished in May of 1954. It was 333 I Street, used to be Mr. Coleman’s store, and I remember the ceremony quite well when they demolished that, I was there to witness that. And until this day there are still undeveloped parcels of Southwest—50, yeah, 51 years after the fact, OK. So, it was just a good idea that turned into a mad idea that kept feeding upon itself over a period of years, and thus what we have in the present day Southwest.
As I said earlier, I still grapple with this concept that they were trying to eradicate some blight. I must say that I am not unique. I have a captain’s license; I can sail a tall ship. Even though medically I am not supposed to do it, I still know how to fly a plane. I love my opera, that’s my fencing foil [points], I have had it now since I was what, 12, my love for literature, the art and all of the other things that you see around me here in this room, I got in Southwest, no other place. I’ve been playing golf since I was 12 years of age. A cab driver; he was an uncle of a neighbor of mine, another one of my buddies Charlie Smith. We used to call him ‘Bub Blimp,’ we had nicknames. That’s where I got my first golf lesson, followed by lessons from my brother and some of the other men from the Police Boys Club.
My art was Mr. Green, Miss LaBrent, Miss Hamlin and people of that nature. My love for music and opera. My godmother was a lady by the name of Margaret Warington, Liggins-Warington. My godmother, save for Madam Avanti, who was a noted soprano here in Washington of international fame, was probably the purest soprano I have ever heard in my life. I often think back to a 1948 production of Aida, an all black production of Aida, that was performed at the National Guard Armory, DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] Constitution Hall being segregated, as what I became very much accustomed to in my childhood.
It’s funny, I thought families had teas throughout America on Sunday, I thought they all belonged to associations, I thought all young people, or young men, because young ladies weren’t doing that at the time, went off to camp to recreate in the summer months. That’s how I grew up. I’ve questioned, and I have been questioned by a number of people as to whether I’m fantasizing about it, but when I go out and I see friends and we talk and my brothers and I and sisters talk about it, we look at each other, and says that “that’s what actually happened, so.” It was just a fascinating place to grow up in. I don’t see it as being this deplorable community that others talk about.
I lived in an eight room, brick house … with, you know, fantastic family around me. Because families are always going to be there. But with fantastic neighbors around me—I think that’s the key. I always tell people, I am probably one of the most blessed guys on the face of the earth. I have lunched at the White House, I have met heads of states, some of my friends in this day and age are peoples whose wealth goes beyond any number that I can count to, but I still value the people that I knew in Southwest far more than any other associations that I have ever made in my life. You know, ever. I have a couple, I have notes here from George Herbert Walker Bush, when he was President, thanking me for a couple of things that I have done, my buddy Clarence Thomas, got a note in here from Clarence, because something I sent to him once. I still put the people and the associations from my childhood in Southwest up here [raised hand over head] as compared to all of that stuff, unbelievable people.
SIMPSON: You spoke a little bit about your stepfather …
COLE: Oh, Charles, the great Charles Petty. Charles Petty, uneducated man, really only completed the second grade in a place called Sumter, South Carolina. The most literate man and most wise man I will probably ever know. Valued education, learned to read, but one hell of a provider. Never went to bed hungry, always had a roof over my head, and more importantly than that he took me fishing. He took me fishing. Just a great all around man. I always had a catcher when he was there. And that’s why I said that, you know, he’s a special guy; because my father’s mother, my natural father’s mother always considered my stepfather as one of her own because he took it upon himself to raise as she said “her grandchildren.” He was quite a guy. Did all of the things, hard work; he cleaned government bathrooms for years, worked at the old Naval Building downtown, then at the Pentagon, he worked as a janitor. Those were most of the jobs that he had all of his life, but he always made sure that he read the newspaper every morning, and I remember, I guess it was about a year before he died, with one of my younger nieces and nephews that was at the time coming out of high school and in a quandary about what she was going to do with her life, and I still remember him suggesting to her, ‘what you do with your life is simply this—you learn, you learn, you learn, and then you read some more.’ And that was what he thought about everything. So that’s why I say he was a special guy, really, really special guy. And I knew my natural father too. I was four. He worked on the wharves there on Southwest.
[Phone ringing tape stopped temporarily]
My natural father, George Cole, worked the wharves in Southwest, he worked as a plumber’s assistant as I recall. And he also had worked at one time in his life on the steamboat District of Columbia, which was part of the steamship service that operated between Washington and Norfolk. He played piano, stride jazz piano, and I understand that he used to play at some of the more—should we say—questionably famous places in Washington, OK. Mainly rent parties and juke joints types of facilities [laughs.] Many years ago I had the occasion to actually run into people who knew him in his youth and they also spoke very fondly of him.
And I think that’s also another point to be made too, about the quality of life, not just for myself, but people of Southwest. I have one surviving aunt, Nancy Banner. Ms. Banner is now 96. I had three aunts who were consummate piano players, and not only in pianist—not only in a sense, not just playing by ear, I mean they could read music and understand it and interpret it quite well. That doesn’t sound like people who would come out of a total area, an area that is totally devoid of any intellect and culture. And I could introduce you to any number of families with similar experiences so, and I wanted to get that in there as a little something a little more reflective of what really happened.
And you also have to remember when you are away from the family stuff, when you think in terms of families here—Eleanor Holmes-Norton. Eleanor will tell you in a moment that ‘no, my family came out of Southwest.’ One of the most noted African-American journalists and photographers of his day, Art Cotter, who did award winning coverage of African-Americans in World War II—Southwest. Burton Johnson, who became the first African-American fire chief—Southwest. And the list just goes on and on and on of the people that came out of that area. Assistant Superintendent of Schools and people like Lawrence Boone and his family. I think of the Parish family that lived up above me, the Howells, the Ravneneaux, one who actually I think—which was it, Osceola, who I think eventually ended up teaching nursing after spending so many years as a nurse. So that’s what I was surrounded with as a child, and like most other communities, where I think we are all surrounded by this, I think what you take away with you as you go out into world, the world, is what you have been—
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1
TAPE 1/SIDE 2
SIMPSON: All right, we’re back with interview with Carl Cole. Side 2, Tape 1.
COLE: We were talking about what I was surrounded with, and as I said in previous statements, the people that you’re surrounded with are really what makes the community— not the bricks and mortar. And thus I think I just grew up in one of the, I was raised in one of the richest communities that ever existed anywhere in the city of Washington.
As the redevelopment began to take hold of everything, and people began to move out into other areas of the city, the associations were so strong we still kept contact with one another. And 50 years after the fact, we still maintain those associations today. As we began to move out into other areas of the city, in particularly and specifically the Capitol Hill area, which I think is your area of interest, they became more dispersed.
The family church that was at Third and L Street is now at 17th and East Capitol, and I guess they call that “Capitol Hill East,” Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. But I also had relatives who already lived in the area. My Uncle Nat, as a matter of fact just passed this past weekend, has been living at 1615 Potomac Avenue [SE] in Capitol Hill East since the early 1950s. I have uncles and aunts who lived over in that area during that time, I have a number of nieces and nephews who still reside in the Capitol Hill area, and another close friend Lloyd Thompson, whose family grew up in Southwest for generations and then moved to the Capitol Hill area, in the very early 50s.
And I’ve heard some discussion with respect to Capitol Hill that one of the things that led to its demise, or its decline in the 50s was that they were moving all of these poorly educated and other types of folks out into these communities, specifically Capitol Hill and also here east of the river. But then when you look at not a land use map [reference is to a land use map from the 1950 Comprehensive Plan brought by the interviewer], but if you look at some of the other social maps of Washington, depicting areas of income and things like that—specifically areas of educational attainment level, you’ll find that there was quite a bump as some African Americans moved into some areas. Because with rare exception, Washington and its broader white community was pretty much blue collar. This idea that there was this huge intellectual and cultural thing beyond the black community just didn’t exist. Even here where I live in Anacostia, strictly a blue collar neighborhood, so much so that this is where Jimmy Dean and Roy Clarke got their starts, right around the corner here at a C&W place that used to be at 16th and what is that, Good Hope Road. So that’s what really happened in the Capitol Hill area.
I saw it as a win/win. Some of the families that still lived there—that lived there at the time are still there: former Chief of Police Ike Fulwood, his family lived in the area, as did the Chavous family, and a number of others. I knew Lloyd Thompson’s family and so on, who continue to live in those areas there. The Montgomerys, I think the patriarch of that family passed only about six months ago, Miss Lucy Montgomery, she also lived on Potomac Avenue, the Johnsons, the Wards, and the list would just go on and on and on of the fantastic families who moved from Southwest into other areas of the city.
The relationship was always to me a good one, because historically back in the late 1800s most of the families who lived in Southwest, or on “the island” as it was known then, and lower Southeast, which has now become Capitol Hill proper, you had families on both sides of the line so you were going back and forth constantly. I think my mother’s mother’s family would be a good example of that. My mother’s mother was a Quander. She had her first house here and lived in the 200 block of New Jersey Avenue [SE] in the late 1890s, but then she had a number of relatives that lived south along Quander Street, which no longer exists. That’s an area that was consumed by the 1938-39 expansion of the Navy Yard in the build-up to World War II. But then she also had relatives who lived in Southwest. And the same would be true of my father’s family; they had relatives interspersed throughout the city, so you had this cross connecting, back and forth, back and forth. And it was not just in black communities. Here again, it was communities. I talked with a gentleman yesterday in Fredericksburg, who grew up in the 900 block of E Street, in the late 40s and early 50s, and he was white. He still has relatives who live over in that area, and he and I had a great time talking because we knew a lot of families in common, and we often talk about going to see families back and forth over here in Southeast or in Southwest or in the Northeast areas over there.
So that’s how I see the moving out and the development and how it impacted, if it had any noticeable impact at all on Capitol Hill. I am one who believes that neighborhoods transition themselves, they have always done that, I often ask people when they start asking me questions and I will say have you ever heard of a guy called Louis Mumford? Well he was a guy who really created what’s in my mind modern day urban planning. But he wrote a beautiful book The History of Cities. And what it is is that cities always have evolved and they will continue to evolve into different class, and seemingly to others are different racial stratas and so forth. But to me that’s just part of the human endeavor. That’s what we human beings do, we move, we relocate, we enjoy the amenities here, we may find something better, we may stay and develop a stronger sense of community than we had in a previous area or something like that.
So that’s how I see the Capitol Hill area. I think what’s happening with respect to the river will greatly impact that area—the Capitol Hill area proper that we are looking at today will not be the Capitol Hill area 10 or 15 years down the road. Not by any grand design, but that’s the way neighborhoods evolve, and I think Capitol Hill eventually will evolve into something else. And also keeping in mind that eventually all things will become ruins [laughs] somewhere in our lives, so you have this cycle of things where these neighborhoods—they develop, they pinnacle, and at some point they decline, only to be reinvented in some later stage. This is one of the things that I think we humans forget, that we’re all living upon ruins of someone or some societies, you know, and that’s why, that’s how I see not just the Capitol Hill area, but the entire neighborhoods of Washington, and of the region is always in some kind of transition.
Anything else? You know you can ask me any specific questions that you may have.
SIMPSON: What about transportation? In terms of, at least in Capitol Hill/Southwest, the laying of the Southeast-Southwest freeway? How did you view that at the time?
COLE: Well when you’re young you don’t think much about it, you’re trying to get to your next baseball game. [laughs] It’s not a great issue for you. The young kids when they first started that construction, we were more fascinated by the machinery. ‘Wow, look at the tires on that truck!’ He wasn’t tearing up our neighborhood, we were seeing things that we’d never witnessed before.
In hindsight it was, here again, it was not Washington, it was throughout the area. Boston is now beginning to demolish most of their 50’s infrastructure—highway-wise, that is. It was an idea that may have been good on paper but in its implementation and what it was to achieve just did not work. The traffic system there in Southwest since they opened the Douglass Bridge, in the early 50s, has always been problematic, OK, because Washington itself—not just Southwest and Capitol Hill and Southeast—but it’s a very compacted area, and when you funnel that number of people in and then have to sort of sieve them out, you’re going to always have that. And you are limited in that respect by the access of number of wide thoroughfares that one can develop.
So the freeway to some was a dividing line, unfortunately a number of the public housing projects that were constructed in the 50s in both Southwest and Southeast were south of the freeway. And the more single family residential areas, of course, being north. They never completed most of it, as they did not only in Southwest, but in Georgetown with the Whitehurst Freeway and so on. I see it all disappearing over the next 20 years. I expect the Southwest Freeway to become a street level grand boulevard as we move away from trying to move vehicles and begin to seriously examine how we move people around, of course employing mass transit. So that’s how I think that happened.
In the Southeast section, it was no different, it sort of formed a barrier, it immediately—first of all, first thing it did, and it is more apparent in Southeast than it is in the Southwest section. It cut people off from the river’s edge. You could not stand there and look south toward the Anacostia hills. And as a result of that I think some areas became extremely isolated where people never really ventured beyond the area south of Virginia Avenue and I Street. And that is another area that I think will be turned into a huge massive boulevard that will go out maybe across the new 11th Street spans and so on. As we begin to rework the entire waterfront area, and here with new bridge construction, the South Capitol Street Bridge will be relocated, will be part of a grander boulevard, heading out South Capitol and then over into the Poplar Point area here. Of course with the Southwest-Southeast freeway coming into the 11th Street, that will be extended and looped into 295 to relieve traffic congestion, not only here but on the Capitol Hill side.
So I think the future for the freeway, I think we’re looking at the last vestiges of that, but I think we’re looking at developing much more grander boulevards. There are a number of plans that are out, NCPC’s [National Capitol Planning Commission] 2050 Plan, speaks to that, if you were to examine the plans that came out of the Anacostia Watershed Initiative process, and then the transportation issues that are being worked on by DDOT, you will show that they began to look at how we can begin to eliminate the freeways, deal with more integrated, intermodal surface traffic, and begin to look at how we move and provide the greater access for people here.
Even the discussions about light rail. Southwest and Southeast, you had the Seventh Street Wharves line, which was the principal one in Southwest, north/south running from the area of Fort McNair to the old car barn that was existed there right below Wheat’s Row, north all the way up to Silver Spring. We had three lines then, three streetcars that ran. It was the Soldiers Home, the Georgia and Alaska, and the Silver Spring line. And as you got up to Independence Avenue, it intersected with the 52 streetcar, which was the Navy Yard, 14th and Colorado line, and then of course as it got up to Pennsylvania Avenue you had the 30 lines there: 32, 34 which ran from the area of Barney Circle all the way out and then up into the area that we now know as Cabin John and Glen Echo.
And as a matter of fact, as recreation on Sundays in good weather we kids growing in Southwest, and even though Glen Echo then was segregated, we could not go in, it was always a treat, particularly this time of year, to ride the streetcars and ride all the way out to Glen Echo. I have yet to see anything in New England that equals that, believe it or not, in the fall of the year—it was just fantastic going through that area. And then we had in the Southeast section, we had, let’s see, the Navy Yard line which came out of the Navy Yard, north on what is present day Barracks Row, and turned west on Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s the 52. That’s the same 52 line that crossed the old Seventh Street Wharves line at Independence and Seventh Streets in Southwest. Then we had one other line that went to Calvert Bridge, that was the 54 line, no the 92s went all the way up to Calvert Bridge, so it was pretty well served with respect to transportation. You never had a problem getting around, and in those days people still walked. Number one, you have to remember that in my youth, that the median income of any family here in DC was barely $2,000. So anytime one could put their feet in the path and walk, you always would save. It was inexpensive though, we used to ride around on passes, which was a little pass that you could get. They were a dollar a week, and children under a certain age could ride with parents and grandparents for free. So we did a lot of traveling by the various vessels were available to us. Both streetcar and on buses, and for kids it was fun, we enjoyed a bus ride downtown. That was just as fascinating as today’s going on a ferris wheel, I would imagine, you know. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But the area was, for such a compacted area, transportation-wise I think it was pretty well served.
SIMPSON: When you moved from Southwest, you had moved from Southwest by the 1970s …
COLE: Oh yes. Definitely.
SIMPSON: … by the beginning of the freeway fight …
COLE: Oh yeah.
SIMPSON: … how did you view the freeway fight in the 70s in Washington, DC, having come out of
COLE: Well, I was involved in some of that as a young man, beginning to realize that you know this is just not a good idea, because initially this was to connect— there is an area up here called Three Sisters [points to map.] Initially there was to be a new bridge built at Three Sisters Island that would have come across Washington and connected all of this [points at map] and then with 395. As I said, as you grow up you begin to realize that oh, the equipment was nice, but this is really an insane process, so you become a little more active in examining it. And I, Reggie Booker, oh god, Frank Bullard and a few of us we became very much involved in protesting against that. Unfortunately it takes government a long, long time to react to its citizenry on any issue. And it was not until the late 70s really when someone in government said, ‘you know this was really a stupid idea, let’s stop this.’ That’s why the Southwest Freeway, Southeast Freeway stops where it does. That’s why even as we sit here now there is discussion about what do we do or how do we get rid of the Whitehurst Freeway? So everybody I think became active in that process that was greatly impacted by all of that and saw that it was actually leading to nowhere. I think people also—I think that was the first time that an entire community developed the sense that, you know, this has to stop. Why? Because, you will never be able to build enough roadways to accommodate what you think or whatever it is you think you are trying to accommodate. We’ve got to look at more intelligent ways of moving people about. I always tell people that best example of that. I remember the opening of the Douglass Bridge so well. And I remember the statement that ‘this is the bridge and this is the roadway that would solve the transportation issues of this region for the next 100 years.’ I still remember that. I also remember the first time that they got that bridge open; the damn sucker wouldn’t close [chuckles] But seriously, it has been a traffic nightmare since then, as all freeways end up being, because I don’t believe that freeways are the key.
Now, do we need modern surface transportation? Yes, we do for commerce. It’s crucial, and as we’re learning now after a series of disasters and other events over the last five or six years, we need them for other purposes; a matter of security, defense, but also responses. But in those days, none of that was thought of, it was just a matter, let’s build this road, if we facilitate travel, we will stimulate growth. And they never thought that a highway could actually lead to the demise of a neighborhood. Even though there were already lessons to be learned. If you go back to the earlier history of Route 1 and the New York Avenue corridor and Route 29, and actually part of Route 29 is in Southwest Washington, as is Route 1. You look at those communities after 301, you could access and go all the way across the Nice Bridge over into Southern Virginia, how it began to isolate the communities there. The earlier stages of putting highways and cutting off west of here, Route 66. So there were lessons out there to be learned, but no one was paying attention to those. I mean, we were on a move, we were growing, we wanted to expand and we thought the best way to expand would be to provide surface transportation modes for people to get there, and we never thought of the fact that maybe a train system or light rail system could do it just as efficiently but also maintain the integrity of the existing communities, and let that be the catalyst for future growth and development.
SIMPSON: Growth and development intersect with politics, and probably one of the salient political questions is could you describe the events leading up to Home Rule, your thoughts on Home Rule, and your involvement at all with that?
COLE: Well that’s a tricky one for me. [long pause] I am not a Home Rule fan. I am Republican, I come out of a Republican family. I have always believed that what people should do is learn how—first of all Home Rule doesn’t exist, it’s a theory that exists only on paper, and I often think about that when I look at the varying states. Do you think Northern Virginia really manages their own affairs? No, they do not. They are managed out of Richmond; they can’t build a road unless Richmond approves it. So it’s something that exists, and here it’s always been used as sort of a red herring if you want to rile people up. This is how you get things done in America. You don’t want to be a politician, you want to have politicians that you own or politicians that owe you favors.
I jokingly often told people that we could have achieved a lot more in Washington, had we then hired the law firm which was—Arnold and Porter was the premier law firm then, this was before the Patton Boggs days. I said we would have done much more had we just dismantled all of the executive branches, and contracted with a law firm here to be our lobbying arm up on Capitol Hill, because that’s the nature of the beast, and that’s how municipalities really achieve and get what they want. And believe it or not, it’s still done today. You know, if it were not done that way then we would not have all of these people walking the halls of Capitol Hill.
When Home Rule came about, or what we call Home Rule here, or the limited form of governments that they have here, I went along with it and I supported it, but I think when we really look at it, what has it really achieved? [long pause] It has provided another level of bureaucracy, that’s for sure, but at the same time the city declined in the areas that are most important to me, in the areas of literacy and education, none of this has served those two processes very, very, well. And to me those are the two most critical elements of any community. The level of literacy that your community can attain, and how well you’re educating your young population. Well to me any system that doesn’t afford that to its broader population, to me is a total waste.
I’ve lived with it, I’ve worked with the elected mayors, with elected city council people, I’ve even been sought out to consider running for city council myself, having all of the times refusing, and still refusing, I just don’t like public life that much. Where will it take us in the future? I would suspect that in the next five years we will probably have a full voting representative in the House. I believe the city council form of government will remain as it is, we will never go back to the Alexander Shepherd days of a governor and something similar to a state legislature, I don’t see that ever evolving again. I am one of those that do believe that the federal government has a right to have an enclave over which they themselves have control, as their operating seat. I believe that. And historically when you look around at all of the documents and all of the dialog about the creation of the Federal City, you will notice that residency seemed to have been an afterthought, when you examine the documents.
I always think about the fight with [Pierre] L’Enfant and Daniel Carroll. On what is now present-day first street Southwest, south of Fort McNair, Daniel Carroll had a very lucrative farming business and also a wharf there with shipping and stuff. And what happened was that L’Enfant lays out his grid pattern, Carroll sees it and says, ‘wait a minute what are you doing, this is my house right here,’ and he [L’Enfant] says ‘well you got to get rid of the house.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Well, because were going to put this thoroughfare here, this roadway here.’ ‘But no we live here.’ So residency was just not thought of in the original plan. It was always viewed as being a place of grander nations’ capitals of Europe, of high marble structures on the bluffs along the riverbanks here, and things of that nature. Residencies were just afterthoughts.
And that’s not say that they were not worked with after that. They finally realized that they would have to have a way of domiciling the bureaucracy that would be moved here, and then began to move here in the 1801 era, and things of that nature, so they began to look at developments. Interesting enough that this area that we are now seated in [Fairlawn] ended up being one of the first experiments in suburban living. One of the first planned communities actually was old town Anacostia back in the 1850s—1850, ’54—to house white workers from the Washington Navy Yard. And then of course other communities continued to grow.
This area over here development wise, still was pretty rural. In the late 60s there were still farms. Douglass Road, a portion of Douglass Road was the last unpaved road in Washington, it was only recently, hardtop, I think it was in the mid 70s, 1970s, so Home Rule did nothing for us. Things evolve. Home Rule to me is how well people manage themselves and not so much as how government manages them. And if you have a citizenry that is not about managing itself, and elevating itself, intellectually and culturally, you could have 25 members on Capitol Hill, you could control the White House, it doesn’t mean anything if the citizens are not involved in elevating themselves. That’s my way of seeing it, it’s not a very popular view here in Washington, I will concede that.
SIMPSON: You’re involved now, and you’re involved now with the redevelopment in Anacostia. Could you speak about that?
COLE: Boy, had I known this I would not have given this interview I tell you. I’m not so much involved in it as just—I’m a board member of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation. The development here, here again, is just part of what Mumford laid out many years ago in the Evolution of Cities and the histories of cities. Neighborhoods come about, they rise, they reach a pinnacle, they decline, they reinvent themselves. The development here was bound to happen, this is the most aesthetic part of Washington. This is the most accessible part of Washington. One of the reasons I live where I do, good example. I like crewing, I can’t row as much as I used to because of my age and injuries catching up with me. I can walk to my rowing club. I love sailing; I can cycle to a sailing center that is less than a 15-minute bike ride from me. If I want to play golf, fantastic, historic golf course a 15-minute drive, but more importantly, let’s say that I’m going to Richmond as I’m doing this weekend. Do you know that I will go through only one traffic light until I come off of I-95 at Belvedere in Richmond?
COLE: Bingo! I just go out here and turn the corner and I’m gone. So it’s the accessibility. More often than not, unless it’s inclement weather, when my wife and I go downtown to theaters, to restaurants, to the Kennedy Center for my opera or music or what have you, we go by subway. Fantastic area. When you have an area that’s that accessible and then you look around and look at the natural aesthetics here, eventually it’s going to be developed. The property values are going to go up; people will want to live here. And I think that’s a good thing. I would love to see every neighborhood in Washington develop to its fullest maximum extent, and as much as this city can afford to do so. I know others would say, well its gentrification. I don’t believe in gentrification. I think that that’s another one of these red herring words that we use to upset people and to rile constituencies when we’re trying to solicit votes. Let’s take PG [Prince George’s] County [Maryland]—
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
TAPE 2/SIDE 1
SIMPSON: Carl Cole interview, tape 2, side 1. October the 4th, 2005.
COLE: As I was saying, if this term gentrification, which I just don’t like. How would you explain gentrification when you have an influx of highly intellectual blacks moving into a blue-collar area? No one ever used the term gentrification with respect to that. It’s only when it’s perceived that highly educated whites are moving into an area that others assume of lower class blacks, intellectually and culturally. That’s when the term comes into play. I must be a little vain, and I doubt if I would consider myself of a lower intellectual and cultural strata. If whites move into this neighborhood, they are just people doing what people have always done, move about looking for places where they would love to settle down and raise their families. They look at the aesthetics of this neighborhood. I did a river walk tour for the Walking DC Tours this past week along the Anacostia riverfront. And in discussions before the tour and after the tour, most of the people were interested in the aesthetics out here. I just didn’t hear anybody say ‘well gee, we understand that there are some lower class blacks out here and we want to displace them; where can I buy a house?’ What they said to me was ‘gee it must nice to be able to walk out your front door and in ten minutes to have all of this available to you.’ And I said ‘it’s fantastic, come over and share it with me sometime.’
So that’s what people do. And then the type of development that’s coming here, I would hope, is the kind that we see along Barracks Row, because it’s not really development, it’s bringing back the neighborhood to what it was. In the early 50s, if you wanted—and even the 60s when I moved over into this area—I did not go to Trover’s on Capitol Hill to buy a New York Times, I went around the corner to Riverside Market to get my New York Times on Sunday morning. Or, if we were having fun after church, we would take the children up to Mellon’s Gallery, which is a druggist, drug store that used to be, well then it was Nichols Avenue and Mellon Street, for breakfast and I would get my New York Times papers there, or over to Bransfield’s which was at South Capitol and Atlantic, OK. This was an area of hamlets that were self contained, you had a strong commercial corridor along Good Hope Road and up King Avenue, you had strong commercial corridor on South Capitol in the Atlantic area, you had a strong commercial corridor on Alabama Avenue between 15th and Stanton Road, and then on the upper stretches you had Bransfield’s, Bendy’s, and places like that that were there, and the Jumbo Supermarket. You had Congress Park, which had a very unique strong commercial district right in there.
So basically what’s really happening is that this area is returning to what it once was, a community of isolated hamlets, and we are isolated because there are no through streets out here east of the river save one—Pennsylvania Avenue—I don’t know if you ever knew that. If you were to try to drive, you leave here now and let’s say you wanted to go to Maryland, there is not one street that you can pick up out here that’s going to take you directly into Maryland without your having to go around or not being cul-de-sac’ed. You would have to go back to Pennsylvania Avenue and take that out. So, it’s cul-de-saced in many of ways and you have these isolated communities in pockets, and each of them was sort of self-sustaining.
The Fairlawn section here had a great little shopping area off of Minnesota Avenue, [coughs] and what I see happening is communities returning to that. And not just here. When you look around the region what’s happening? Pentagon Row is one that I always like to look at. That’s a neat little community in there, well guess what? That’s a modern day lower Anacostia/Fairlawn area, where things that people need are right there at their neighbors’ fingertips. So that’s how I see the development. I think the business development on the northern banks of the Anacostia in the Southeast Federal Center Area, the Forrest City Development Area, and in the entire AWI or the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation Area of authority; I think that is going to have an impact. I think the relocation of Homeland Security to the West Campus of St. Elizabeth’s will have an impact.
I think these are all good impacts. I see people who will be coming into the new Coast Guard facility on the West Campus, eventually looking not only for places to live, but looking for places to shop, and what better way to revitalize a community than have new workers coming in that don’t want to go downtown to eat, they want to eat where they work at, and that’s going to influence and generate along the Martin Luther King corridor, the Good Hope Road corridor, lots of commercial development, and commercial opportunities for those who choose to stay and make it work for them.
Which is the other key to development: people run from the unknown. They’ve heard so much rhetoric about ‘oh if these people move in, we don’t want these people here, you know white people are moving in,’ I think the operative word is people, and when you really peel back all of the rhetoric and all of the layers that we lay on this stuff, you’ll find that people basically look for the same thing. A good solid home where they can raise their family in a community where they can walk about, touch, feel, and get a sense of themselves, and the people around them. That’s what people do, and that’s what I see eventually coming out here. That’s what’s happening on Capitol Hill, that’s all that’s happening; it wasn’t gentrification, my god! I know more people on Capitol Hill now then I’ve ever known in my life, and the vast majority of them are white, and I am really offended when people call my friends racist because they moved into a house that was formerly occupied by a black. I don’t recall them pulling a gun on anyone and saying ‘if you don’t give me this house I’m going to take your life,’ they didn’t do that, they saw an opportunity and they took advantage of it.
To the blacks that live here east of the river, I say opportunity is knocking at your door, take advantage of it, extend yourself outward, learn what the development is going to bring, see how you can access the development, what can it bring to you. I’m very much happy with the idea of doing arts and culture out here; in my discussion with all the developers, as a matter of fact everybody, including the mayor, tends to say ‘oh-oh here comes Carl, let’s hide,’ because they know the first thing I’m going to say is ‘well, are we front-loading arts and culture?’ ‘We’re working on it, Carl.’ ‘No we can’t work on it, we’ve got to do it.’ Along Good Hope Road I would like to see studios and lofts for artists and photographers. I’m going to the opening of THEARC [Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus], which is an arts and recreational and community center in far Southeast this coming weekend. And that’s a great thing; they need stages, but artists need lofts, they need working spaces, they need places to develop their skills, and I think that this area would be very much attuned to something like that.
I see the Barracks Row concept as just working its way out and across the 11th Street Bridge and King Avenue, all the way up. That scares a lot of people, it doesn’t frighten me. I see a fantastic community where those who elect to stay here are just going to have a center of intellect and culture around them that will be just almost unequaled anywhere in the region. And that’s how I see the development, how I think it’s forming, and the good things that is going to come out of all of it.
SIMPSON: Well, you have answered most of my questions is there any thing you would like to add?
COLE: Not really, other than I hope that in these interviews, I knew Ruth Ann Overbeck, OK. I know a lot of the people involved in the project, Cindy Janke, of course you know I know Jim and Bernadette [McMahon] and quite a few others. If anything, I hope these interviews, somehow or another, will be used to do away with the myths about development, about how communities evolve where we are pitting one class of people, and I won’t say race because I don’t like using that term either, one class of people against another, and just using these to show that this is what has happened in community after community after community. Not by design, but this is what human beings do, we’re always looking to improve on the quality of life no matter where we live. And for those who stay, they are rewarded by taking part in a grander community. That’s how I hope these interviews would be used, and I know Ruth Ann would want that, because she always did believe that the key to the future was not always trying to live the past, but understanding it, as it relates to present day things. And there was an old saying that I often use, ‘these interviews should be used to understand how we come here.’ And with that I will end my interview.
SIMPSON: Thank you very much Mr. Cole.
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
END OF INTERVIEW