As my father once said upon visiting our nation’s capital, “What the sam hell is a swampoodle?”
Yes, I am aware it is the name of the area between Capitol Hill and NoMa, where Union Station now stands. But what the sam hell is a swampoodle? For an explanation, read on…
Peter the Great, I’m sure, is very amused by Washington, D.C.’s pretensions.
Laura Bush noted, in the foreword to Worthy of the Nation, that Washington was “the city that dreamers had in mind”. The phrase brings to mind lofty white-columned buildings, elegant lawns, wide, clear boulevards, and all that stirring of patriotic angina that comes with gazing upon the Capitol dome in the hopeful glow of sunrise.
Which tends to make one forget that Washington, in all its loveliness, is built on a swamp. (Political pundits find this one of the greater ironies of our government). In the spring of 1784, the newly-fledged government of the United States was in search of a capital. Southern legislators protested locating the capital in an established northern city such as Philadelphia, Trenton, or Princeton, fearing control of the government would be influenced by proximity to Yankee mercantile culture. The Yankees felt the same about them.
Alexander Hamilton, that sullied genius, found a way to unify the factions while simultaneously getting them to agree to consolidate mountainous Revolutionary War debt. In 1790, Congress agreed that the “temporary residence” of Congress would be Philadelphia and that the permanent residence “be placed on the eastern or north-eastern bank of the Potomac“.
Of particular note in the selection of the site of Columbia were three things: it had to be a “convenient place as near the center of wealth, populations, and extent of territory”, “convenien[t] to the navigation of the Atlantic Ocean”, and with “due regard to the particular situation of the Western country”. It also had a lot to do with the first President, who at 58 didn’t feel like commuting too far from his home at Mount Vernon.
The site chosen was located between Tiber Creek and the Potomac River, on a swampy peninsula ringed by high hills on all sides. British generals cried into their port wondering how such nincompoops could possibly have beaten them in a war. The site was unbuildable, indefensible, and damned inconvenient to anything, particularly the Atlantic Ocean.
The indefatigable Pierre-Charles L’Enfant was asked to draw up a plan for what a lovely model city ought to look like. No matter that he had been trained as a painter, who needs a degree to design buildings? (Just ask Robert Mills.) The city was laid out in a grid based on ideal landscapes of a century earlier, with more than a nod to the plan of Versailles.
It was at this point that the poor fellows trying to grade the streets heard the sepulchral laughter of Peter the Great and his indefatigable French city planner, Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond (not to be confused with Le Brunette). Peter and Le Blond had once tried to build a city in a swamp, and killed thousands of serfs to do it. St Petersburg survived, though millions died over the ensuing three hundred years of dysentery, cholera, other nasty waterborne diseases, or just plain drowning in floods. But, wait! Washington has mosquitos!
Skip forward to the mid-nineteenth century, just before the Civil War. Economic depression and a vicious fungus had propelled thousands of Irish immigrants to American cities in hopes of a better life. Americans, in their burgeoning spirit of tolerance (ahem, oversight) even let Catholics vote! Washington, D.C. was no exception, particularly after the Civil War when thousands of Irish joined the army for the free clothes and regular meals. After the war, many had nowhere else to go so they stayed where they had mustered out.
Now, where did these brogue-ish immigrants congregate? Not among their horrified Anglo-Saxon Protestant neighbors, for the simple reason that they couldn’t afford it. The cheapest land in the District was the most undesirable: the swamps on the banks of the Tiber and the Anacostia. Too mucky for ship landings, too mosquito-ridden for residence, too wet for good foundations. Aha, why not put the Irish there? They’re dirty and poor and are probably going to die young anyway.
So the Irish collected in a large untidy neighborhood on the banks of Tiber Creek. Jackson’s Alley and neighboring streets quickly became known as the roughest area in the city, “a lawless shantytown” of hoors and chancers. One colorful story from 1879 describes two sisters pelting police officers with rocks in defense of their intoxicated brother. When local residents were asked where they lived, they responded with “The Swamp” or “The Puddle”. (“The Puddle” is also possibly a play on the Irish translation of Dublin, “the black pool”) This was recorded in 1857, when one enterprising writer covering the opening of St Aloysius Church (only the Irish would have a St Aloysius) gave it the double moniker of “the swamp-puddle“.
Now, channel your best Dublin accent a la Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (ooooohh) and say “Swamp-Puddle”. One more time. Yep. Now you get it.
Sadly, this ethnically fabulous neighborhood was ‘cleared’ in the early twentieth century by city fathers trying to clean up the place. Union Station now squats on the former heart of the Swampoodle and the Irish of DC are condemned to camping out at the Dubliner.