The Hidden History Inside Washington, D.C.'s Blagden Alley
Walk through the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood these days, and you’ll step into a preservation fantasy land.
Inside the system of interior alleyways is a booming commercial core of craft cocktails and coffee, street art, and one of the city’s most popular new restaurants—not to mention a crowd of projects clamoring to get in next—and almost all of it is hosted inside beautiful historic buildings.
But the story behind these two city blocks is far from a fairy tale.
Beginning in the 1870s, the stylish rowhouses that surround the interior corridors of Blagden Alley and its quieter neighbor one block north, Naylor Court, helped create a secret world of poverty and struggle. It was a world that barely changed until after the area’s National Register nomination in the 1990s, when more than a century of hard living and heartbreak started to turn on its head.
Going from poverty to posh in less than 20 years is a complicated thing. I wanted the full story. So I went in search of answers.
It’s a late afternoon in March and the garage door opposite the wood-grain coffee bar at La Colombe in the heart of Blagden Alley is rolled all the way up. Two middle-aged women sit next to me sipping lattes. Creative classers are scattered across wooden stools peering through tortoise shell glasses at their Mac screens.
The barista behind the counter can’t tell me much about the building, but judging from its size and construction, it was likely one of the multiple horse stables that was built in the alley in the 1880s.
The manure from these places was often left nearby to rot in the sun. Sources say the smell would mix with the ramshackle privies of alley dwellers to create a “smothering” odor. Nowadays, it just smells like expensive coffee.
Locals tote their laptops in and out. A police officer stops by just to check in. “I’m supposed to tell you this thing is recording,” the cop tells a barista, pointing to his body camera.
As I continue to pour over research about the alley’s history in the days following my visit, it becomes clear that this type of polite interaction between law enforcement and citizens is a fairly new development.
If you want to get technical, the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District is made up of D.C. squares 368 and 367—basically the two blocks between 9th and 10th streets and M and O streets in the city’s northwest quadrant.
Both squares were included in plans for the city as early as 1792, and designs for their systems of alleys—later named for 19th-century residents Thomas Blagden and Dickerson Nailor (the spelling later changed)—appeared by 1794. Development didn’t begin until the 1830s and remained relatively sparse for decades.
At the start, the area was generally middle class and relatively diverse. Of 81 recorded property owners in 1859, 20 were people of color, 11 were women.
But in the 1860s, with the advent of the Civil War and those fleeing the South in its aftermath, Washington’s population jumped by roughly 75 percent. As the demand for housing grew, properties in squares 368 and 367 were subdivided into street-facing and alley-facing lots. The result was a neighborhood with an increasingly split personality.
In the decades following the Civil War, Washington enjoyed another boom. Public sewers and a streetcar line drew more people to squares 368 and 367, and many of the attractive residences that still make up most of the neighborhood’s perimeter were built for local doctors, lawyers, and tradesmen.
But as the number of middle class houses on the perimeter of the blocks increased, the number of brick dwellings, lean-tos, and shanties solely fronting the alley exploded. There were often no floors to protect tenants against the cold winters, and residents were known to spend summertime nights stretched out in the alley on ironing boards and rocking chairs to combat the oppressive Mid-Atlantic heat.
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As time wore on, the inequality grew. In 1880, there were 62 heads of households inside the two alley systems. All were black. Most were employed in unskilled or service occupations. And with rents already high and climbing, often as many as nine tenants crammed into simple two-room dwellings. Joining them later in the decade were horses, which occupied numerous stables.
Already the home for those with no better option, Blagden Alley grew more cramped, crowded, and forgotten. Those confined to the alleys developed a society of their own. Crime and prostitution were a part of daily life, and with the overwhelming crowding of humans and animals came the burden of unsanitary conditions and high tensions. Police were reportedly hesitant to enter the alleys on their own, and when they did, they weren’t offered much hospitality.
After my tea at La Colombe, I take a walk around the neighborhood. Today, even a quick stroll in these parts is like flipping through a late-19th-century architecture catalog: Federal Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Romanesque Revival structures still stand. Some have been restored while others have fallen on harder times. They house everything from high-end residences and restaurants to liquor stores with bulletproof glass.
The neighborhood, it is fair to say, is in a state of transition.
After a couple laps, I stop by A&D Bar on the ground floor of a Victorian rowhouse on 9th Street for a quick drink before dinner. A&D opened as “Shaw’s Neighborhood Bar” in 2012 as a venture from the owners of a sandwich shop located just around the corner inside Naylor Court. In previous lives, the building served as a funeral home, a deli, and a restaurant.
By now it’s 6:00 p.m. and the low sunlight is reflecting off the facade of the convention center across the street and into the long, thin, dimly lit space. There’s exposed brick all around and antique light fixtures above. A few regulars at the end of the bar catch the breeze and the sirens that waft in through the open door. I choose a local DC Brau Public Ale from the menu of cans sitting on a shelf behind the bar. Happy hour or not, at $4, it’s a steal in D.C.
As the 1800s drew to a close, conditions inside the alley systems continued to deteriorate.
At the behest of local activists, Congress passed a law banning the construction of new alley dwellings in the city of Washington as early as 1892. By the early 1900s, the movement to reform alley dwelling had gained even more strength—though it’s unclear whether the intent was to solve the problem of the lack of affordable housing for citizens or to address the symptoms of overcrowding, crime, and disease.
By 1914, the situation was bad enough to draw attention from First Lady Ellen Wilson, who made a deathbed request that alley dwellings finally be eradicated. Though legislation in 1918 granted her wish, the advent of WWI, quickly focused attention elsewhere.
A campaign to rid the city of alley dwellings endured in the decades that followed with earnest intentions but little follow-through. And though their numbers continued to decline into the mid-1900s, outright bans proved elusive.
By the 1960s, the nationwide flight of those with means to the suburbs took its toll on Washington as much as anywhere else, and even began to affect what had always been the well-to-do homes on the neighborhood’s perimeter.
In the aftermath of the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the alley dwellings and street-facing properties alike were largely abandoned and stripped to the bone. Roofs collapsed, and fires were occasionally set by squatters or vandals.
The neighborhood, in essence, was a wasteland.
After finishing up at A&D, I wander over for dinner at The Dabney, back inside Blagden Alley. The restaurant occupies a renovated rowhouse from the late 1800s, but the entrance is through what was once a garage—and perhaps another stable before then—in the alley-facing rear.
The Dabney opened this past October and identifies as Modern American food with strong historic and regional influences. “We source as much as possible from farmers, fishermen, and purveyors throughout the Mid Atlantic,” owner Alex Zink wrote me in an email.
When it comes to its philosophy, this place is hardcore. It spurns an oven for a 10-foot wood-burning hearth in its open kitchen, and according to the Washington Post, even interviewed its plumbers to ensure everyone attached to the restaurant shared the same “non-commercial” mindset.
Inside, the vibe feels almost like a cozy hunting lodge, with dark wooden floors, tables, and chairs. The brick wall behind the bar is original, but most everything else, including the brass light fixtures, is new to the space.
“We had a very specific vision in mind when looking for a restaurant space and felt strongly that our concept needed to have a sense of place,” Zink told me. “It wouldn’t make sense in a brand-new, super-modern building. We love that our guests enter through Blagden Alley and walk over cobblestones to get to our door.”
By the 1980s, Blagden Alley was beginning to bottom out. But even as the American crack epidemic joined the rampant prostitution and chop shops that had characterized the neighborhood for more than a decade, the seeds for its rejuvenation were quietly being sown.
A few savvy investors saw the rock-bottom prices and proximity to downtown as an opportunity. At least one person began gobbling up derelict properties by mailing absentee landlords $25,000 cashier’s checks for outright ownership.
“There were people who looked for value, who were willing to put in the effort, and who didn’t fear the blight,” says Richard Neidich, who moved to the neighborhood in 1994 and previously served as the president of the Blagden Alley Naylor Court Association.
This clip from the 1979 film "Being There" was filmed in what would become the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District and shows the state of the neighborhood at the time.)
As more people fixed up their homes and the risk in the neighborhood went down, banks were more willing to loan to new investors. And though crime and prostitution continued into the ‘90s, the alleys began to attract a counter-culture crowd who threw raves in some of the abandoned buildings that had yet to attract investment but also opened a few art studios and galleries.
Though it wasn’t apparent at the time, the real turn came in 1996, when a fight to have the alley itself rezoned from residential to commercial use was successful. This effort, combined with the construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on adjacent blocks and the continued improvement of properties surrounding the alley, set the stage for an investment boom in the second decade of the 2000s.
But with the burgeoning success of the neighborhood came the risk of losing what had made the alley special in the first place. The neighborhood’s pioneers saw it coming as early as the ‘90s, and knew they needed a way to combat a wholesale change in the neighborhood’s character as developers began to take notice.
They found an answer in historic preservation. With designation as a National Register Historic District in 1990 and, in turn, listing on the District of Columbia’s Inventory of Historic Sites that same year, any building permit granted to developers or a property owner required approval from the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board. This meant that while development was encouraged, it would have to happen within the confines of the area’s historic character.
By the time La Colombe opened as one of the first big commercial ventures in Blagden Alley in 2014, the stage was set not just for a commercial boom, but the preservation of the area’s most important features.
And the rest is history.