The Misfortunes of New Jersey Avenue

The Tumultuous Life of a Capitol Hill Road

WASA pumping station at end of New Jersey Avenue. Photo: Robert S. Pohl

When the federal government moved to its new city in 1800, little was ready for the incoming politicians. In spite of the care Peter L'Enfant had taken in drawing up its map, the reality looked more like a random accretion of buildings scattered willy-nilly across the landscape.

Except for one road: New Jersey Avenue, in particular the stretch from the Capitol down to the Eastern Branch, as the Anacostia River was called at the time.

Here, a group of investors led by Thomas Law had built numerous houses, homes for the new workers of the city. Further down the road, where it joined the river, there was a wharf, and even a sugar refinery, signaling the industrial future of the nation's capital. New Jersey Avenue was, in short, the harbinger of great things to come for this new city.

Today, this stretch of New Jersey Avenue is one of the least attractive and coherent streets in all of southeast DC. Although it starts off fine, flanked by two imposing House office buildings, it soon degenerates into a series of industrial sites with only a few new projects that give hope that the blighted landscape will, once again, be appropriate for a site with a view of the Capitol.

How Did New Jersey Ave. Turn Into This?

It all started with the L'Enfant plan. Scattered about his map are open areas – reservations, he called them  – that were to be kept by the government for their own use, whether for a mile marker, or a statue to George Washington, or for a series of five fountains. The last were to be installed in the land referred to as Reservation 17, an area bisected by New Jersey Avenue about halfway between the Capitol and the Eastern Branch.

Needless to say, these fountains, along with many other of L'Enfant's flights of fancy, were never built. Instead, the ground remained unused, and eventually, part of it was snipped off to allow trains to pass through DC. The train line went along the southern border of the park, severing its connection to the Anacostia.

Some attempt was made to rebuild New Jersey Avenue: In the early 1880s, the roadway was properly paved all the way through the park. A few years later, however, this work was deemed inappropriate, and the stones were again removed.

In the following years, the two halves of New Jersey Avenue developed quite differently. While the northern end was filled with modern brick houses, the southern end, clearly on the wrong side of the tracks, contained a motley collection of wood-frame houses.

As the 19th Century became the 20th, further blows fell. The train line was now a large marshaling yard. The southern end ran into the new sewer pumping station, that, while an attractive building, cut off any connection to the river. At the same time, New Jersey Avenue was truncated, with its end now being M Street. A garbage transfer station had been built just a few blocks south of Reservation 17 by the Washington Fertilizer Company, who owned the contract to remove all garbage, and deceased animals, from the District. The only positive move that had been done was to turn the reservation into a park. It was named for James Garfield, who had been assassinated in 1881. But then, in a final indignity, the section of Garfield Park west of New Jersey Avenue was snipped off in order to build a power plant for the Capitol.

Around this time, New Jersey Avenue was reconnected, with a bridge crossing the railway tracks, but by then, the damage had been done. The two pieces of the road continued to develop in remarkably different ways, and even as the northern end found itself more and more subsumed by the Capitol and its office buildings – and allied parking lots – the southern end turned into a series of semi-industrial vistas.

The final blow came in the 60s, when the southeast freeway was built. While it crossed over the Avenue on an elevated roadway, it finally and irrevocably severed the two pieces of the avenue,

Revitalization

In spite of the bleak landscape presented by the southern portion of the avenue, one thing could not be denied: Its proximity to the Capitol. As real estate prices on the Hill rose, so did the value of land south of the freeway. Especially enticing to the developers was the fact that the land here was available in large chunks, appropriate for the building of condos. Numerous projects have already been completed, and more are in the pipeline, including one on land where the remains of the trash transfer station are being removed prior to the building of a 335-unit apartment complex. At the southern end, which still dead-ends into the sewer pumping station, the roadway has been extended past M Street again, and there fronts the new Department of Transportation building.

With the rebirth of this area, anchored by the stadium and the Navy Yard projects, this section of New Jersey Avenue will be just as vibrant as the area near the Capitol. Most important to the rebirth was the Navy Yard metro stop, which for the past 20 years has ensured that those living in area have a connection with the rest of the city, a connection as important as the one this road once had to the Capitol.


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