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The Not-So-Changed Face of the City

If you let yourself get caught up in the rhetoric of development and change, you might think Washington today would be unrecognizable to a refugee from the 1950s. But a gallery of pictures of the District now on display online demonstrates that large chunks of the cityscape look oddly similar to how they appeared half a century ago, if you can look past the cool mid-century cars.

The District transportation department has posted a slew of vintage photographs detailing what some commonly traveled spots around town looked like in the not so terribly distant past.

The intersection of Georgia and Missouri avenues NW was a tangled mess even then. Tenleytown was as sterile and bereft of urban life then as it is today (even after the investment of billions in the Metro system.)

On the other hand, N. Capitol Street without the extended health campus around Washington Hospital Center looks downright bucolic. And a remarkable number of the photos show steady traffic in one direction, but empty lanes in the other--a reminder that the District is no longer the sole or even the dominant job center in the region, so rush hour traffic no longer favors one direction over the other. And, man, does Connecticut Avenue NW look much more civilized and manageable with streetcars running down its center lanes.

But to my eye the most startling picture is that of the Key Bridge, with a very sparsely developed, low-rise Rosslyn in the foreground and Georgetown in the background. All of a sudden, you see that the Key Bridge was designed to be very much like the Memorial Bridge and even the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge over the Anacostia River--and those new roundabouts that the city is building at the foot of the Douglass Bridge and elsewhere are indeed a reiteration of what was once the primary means of controlling traffic along the city's rivers.

Have a look at the photos and add your observations and conclusions about the differences between then and now.

By Marc Fisher |  February 15, 2007; 7:41 AM ET
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As you well know, Tenleytown will remain a ghost town as long as the churlish nimbys who live around there persist in their fantasy that Tenleytown is still a quaint village circa 1870 and resist any kind of urban use. Their ANC just shot down another development proposal for that ugly car lot on Wisconsin because it was "too tall". Say what? Those charming pictures could have been taken this year - or might be taken 20 years from now, unless the self-appointed guardians of public beauty (read: dullness) move on to browner pastures. (Hmmm, I'm sounding a bit churlish myself. Must be the infectious gaiety flowing from the Tenleytown ANC.)

Posted by: korm | February 15, 2007 8:40 AM

I first came to Washington as a toddler in 1951; my father was stationed at the Pentagon and we lived at Ft. Meyer. I have vivid memories of the Rosslyn depicted in that picture of Key Bridge, with a Hot Shoppe (sp?) where the Marriott now stands.

I didn't return to the area for another 30 years, but most of the District itself did seem familiar and unchanging. There were more changes between 1980 and now than between 1951 and 1980, and change seems to be accelerating (or my age is). I really do miss those mid-century cars, though.

Posted by: Rocco | February 15, 2007 8:53 AM

Wait - when you say Tenleytown are you talking about Wisconsin Ave and River Road? It's a bit boring, but I'm not sure I'd call it "sterile and bereft of urban life". That sounds more like Rockville Pike to me, or even Bethesda. What does Korm want out of Tenleytown, anyway? Another Adams Morgan or U Street Corridor? There's plenty of "urban life" elsewhere in D.C. - why complain about a part of the city that never aspired to be hip or cool? If you don't like T-town, quit griping and spend your time somewhere else.

Posted by: NWDC | February 15, 2007 9:16 AM

Ys, Korm obviously wants more suburban-brand stores in the quiet urban setting of Tenleytown, and plenty of "hip" bars and restaurants. Tenley isn't a ghost town and it suits the current residents just fine. I guess it's too hard for Korm to get to the Mazza Gallery area to buy his Gap clothes. Korm, you clearly don't want to live in a neighborhood such as Tenleytown, so move somewhere like Logan Circle, or SoLo, or whatever dumb name they're tagging it these days in order to pump up the cost of a 1BR condo. And if you don't live in Tenleytown, then why does this matter so to you?

Posted by: Sandra | February 15, 2007 9:33 AM

Yes, Korm obviously wants more suburban-brand stores in the quiet urban setting of Tenleytown, and plenty of "hip" bars and restaurants. Tenley isn't a ghost town and it suits the current residents just fine. I guess it's too hard for Korm to get to the Mazza Gallery area to buy his Gap clothes. Korm, you clearly don't want to live in a neighborhood such as Tenleytown, so move somewhere like Logan Circle, or SoLo, or whatever dumb name they're tagging it these days in order to pump up the cost of a 1BR condo. And if you don't live in Tenleytown, then why does this matter so to you?

Posted by: Sandra | February 15, 2007 9:34 AM

I can't believe the photo of Rosslyn myself. As an Arlingtonian I'd love to see more Arlington photos...most of the DC ones were not of areas I am familiar enough with to have a comparison.

Addmitedly, I'm a "Then and Now" photo book nerd.

Posted by: Christine | February 15, 2007 11:55 AM

I love this stuff, and only reinforces what I said last week about DC -- I love this city!

Posted by: OD | February 15, 2007 12:10 PM

I was especially surprised to see that that concrete block next to the Key Bridge approach used to be a sign welcoming you to Washington. I always assumed it was a utility box or something. Nowadays it's just a graphiti target.

Posted by: Reid | February 15, 2007 12:27 PM

wtop.com did a great story on this a few weeks ago and took updated photos for side by side comparisons, very cool.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 15, 2007 3:32 PM

Nice pics -- thanks Marc

Posted by: PM | February 15, 2007 4:32 PM

Great photos, thanks for posting the link. On the shot of Rosslyn and Key Bridge, you can see the turnaround loop for the DC streetcars that terminated on the Virginia side of the Key Bridge. DC Transit operated streetcars in addition to buses until about 1961 or 1962. If anyone has seen the Otto Preminger movie of ADVISE AND CONSENT, you see some of the streetcars in operation right before they took them out of service. I think there's a scene filmed on location in DC where the character played by Charles Laughton gets off of a streetcar.

I didn't often get to Northern Virginia when I was a child but I do remember the DC streetcars that terminated in Rosslyn. I definitely remember the "Welcome to Washington" sign from the 1960s and 1970s. Thanks for bringing back some nice memories, Marc!

Posted by: Longtime Metro rider | February 15, 2007 4:50 PM

In 50 more years, Tenleytown will still be drive through country. My nimby neighbors complain about lack of services (library, parks, emergency services & public education)but fail to realize that their blocking commercial development along a major urban corridor limits the tax dollars DC can collect to accomplish their wants. I would love to see growth by the metro, but sadly I am in the minority. My neighbors really should live in Rockville or Reston, not the city.

Posted by: Auparker | February 16, 2007 11:13 AM

Sandra & NWDC, I agree that "hip" bars and Gap stores aren't needed but sometimes the good comes with the bad. For example, I love having a nearby hardware store even if it is under the Best Buy. People like you would rather keep the library closed down, the empty used car lots that atract vandals and delinquents and the dirty asian restaurants that keep opening under new names after each health violations.

Posted by: concernedintenley | February 16, 2007 11:31 AM

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