Take a look at those houses hugging the hillside above you. The neighborhood is Brookmont, a streetcar suburb laid out in 1925, a year after the canal was abandoned. The suburb was planned with roads for cars and around a streetcar line to Washington, DC. Originally, Brookmont came down the hill towards you for about 2 more blocks, with a street called Potomac Avenue where the Parkway is today. A row of house lots was squeezed between Potomac Avenue and the Canal – these lots faced inward, with their rears to the canal and the river. There is a great story here for another day, about how this neighborhood was designed to figuratively turn its back on the Canal and river to focus on new means of transportation.
But that is only the start of the story. Why are you now looking at four lanes of the Clara Barton Parkway? What happened to the homes that were planned for here? What happened to Potomac Avenue?
In the early 20th Century, Americans fell in love with parks – both the wild national parks of the west and green, manicured urban spaces of the east. At the same time, they fell hard for the automobile. It is not difficult to see the logic that would follow: why not connect parks with parks and suburban areas with the city by building parkways -essentially, parks that were roads themselves? The modern concept of a Parkway was born. Led by New York City’s precedent-setting parkway system, federal planners mapped out a parks and parkways plan for Washington, DC, imagining a series of parkways whisking cars throughout the area.
The missing lots and streets of Brookmont were taken when the federal government began buying and condemning parcels of land to construct the Clara Barton Parkway. While the condemnation and obliteration of a quarter of a neighborhood for a parkway may seem unthinkable today, it occurred quite frequently in the 1930’s and 1940’s. To quote Robert Moses, the master builder of hundreds of miles of parkways around New York City, “Those who can, build.”
And build they did. Many of the region’s parkways – the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the Baltimore Washington Parkway, and the Suitland Parkway – were constructed through existing farms, neighborhoods and estates, all requiring massive land acquisition efforts, in addition to the design and building efforts. But a funny thing happened in 1940 - the Pennsylvania Turnpike. With the first superhighway, automobile travel became more about speed. For the motorist, the “arriving” was starting to become more important than the “getting there.” In coming years, the concept of parks, too, began to move away from sculpted landscapes to the more wild, natural places we enjoy today. The romance with parkways would slowly begin to fade, although not without a few passionate battles.