BY BRAULIO AGNESE
All cities bear scars, evidence of past planning decisions, made with the best of intentions, that affect urban space in negative ways over the following decades. For more than 40 years, Washington, D.C.’s northwest quadrant has suffered a particularly prominent one where the District’s downtown meets the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the east: A three-block-long, 200-foot-wide opening above the depressed Center Leg Freeway (I-395), which runs beneath the nation’s capital from New York Avenue down to the Southeast Freeway (I-695).
The opening—bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the north, E Street to the south, 2nd Street on the east, and a handful of buildings along 3rd Street—is a remnant of the nationwide mid-20th-century effort to revitalize cities by bringing high-speed, multilane highways around and through urban cores. Extensive plans for the District included an interstate loop within the city that would stretch from the west end of the National Mall to the Anacostia River on the east. The eight-lane Center Leg Freeway, which skirts along the U.S. Capitol’s west side, was the second segment built.
North of Constitution Avenue, the section of D.C. the freeway would pass through was a largely black and mixed-European working-class neighborhood that had been in long decline as the city suffered from white flight and economic woes. (Partly in response to the District’s difficulties, a complete reorganization of local government in 1967 gave D.C. semiautonomous rule with its first mayor and City Council.) The area was considered blighted, and there was little effort to resist the project. But seven years after construction on the Center Leg Freeway began, (more…)