Upon emerging from her apartment complex on a brisk October afternoon, 97-year-old Elizabeth Adams strolled north along 24th Street, leisurely skirting the edge of campus. For nearly a century, the vicinity has served as a fault line of a great and often thunderous battle between a vibrant community and an equally dynamic university.
The scars of battle, residents often lament, have altered the terrain beyond recognition, and many fear Foggy Bottom is all but the conquered territory of the ever-expanding George Washington University.
Stopping to pause for breath, Adams said the University has done nothing but detract from its surroundings in its 90-year tumultuous courtship with Foggy Bottom and the West End, but quickly retracted her statement upon further thought. Nonetheless, a distinct note of sadness remained as she recalled an era of grandeur that once adorned the rising neighborhood.
“When the Watergate was built we had a lot of advantages. They had beautiful shops. They had beautiful places to eat. They had all of those things. But they were not compatible with the way the neighborhood changed,” Adams said. “So they all went out of business and departed. All the nice things have gone. I suppose the change made them leave. It detracted from the people that were here that came to find a certain aura or locale.”
Today the aging face of the Watergate and the conversion of the former Howard Johnson into a GW dormitory serve as testaments to a new era in Foggy Bottom’s history. Realizing the inevitability of change, Adams is reluctant to blame the University for the current state of the neighborhood.
When Jacob Funk wrested a tract of low-lying swamplands from the banks of the Potomac in the mid-1700s to establish the village of Hamburg, the prospect of an upscale Foggy Bottom battling a Goliath institution of higher learning 250 years later would have seemed preposterous.
In 1910, the newly renamed George Washington University, tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, was forced to evacuate its downtown property at 15th and H streets and take refuge in a squalid, working-class neighborhood on the west end of the city. For nearly two years, the University barely managed to remain alive as students assembled in rented buildings in the midst of the industrial ghetto of Foggy Bottom.
Official University encroachment began in 1912 with the purchase of property at 2023 G St. that was formerly inhabited by a school for girls. Peace prevailed for a time, but the players had assembled for a battle that would begin to embroil the neighborhood several decades later.
In those days, the Foggy Bottom skyline was dominated by the unsightly holding tanks of a gas works plant near the present-day Watergate, in addition to breweries and an assortment of other manufacturing enterprises.
“There was a time, in all fairness to the University, when the city itself was not as economically vibrant, and the University did a great service because it stabilized the city. It took building and real estate that nobody wanted at the time,” said Ron Cocome, president of the Foggy Bottom Association. “But conditions have changed and the University’s attitudes have changed, one for the better and one for the worst.”
An intensive campaign of land acquisition began in 1927 when Cloyd Heck Marvin became University president and acquired the tract of land around University Yard. GW’s newfound fervor in acquiring property began to raise eyebrows.
Gregory Squires, a GW professor of urban sociology, alluded to the structural nature of GW’s increasing conflicts with its neighbors. In any university-community scenario, proximity is key to the dynamics of the relationship, Squires said.
“There’s more direct contact between students and residents in an urban setting than in a more rural campus simply because of the closer proximity of students to local homes and businesses,” Squires said. “For residents, this is their home. It’s where they live, work and play. They do not necessarily want to see greater intrusions of a large institution into their neighborhoods.”
Former University President Lloyd Elliott fell under harsh criticism for being more interested in real estate than education. In his 28-year presidency, Elliott presided over such ambitious construction endeavors as the Gelman Library, Smith Center, and medical and law centers. Current President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg seized the reins from Elliott in 1988, nearly single-handedly reconfiguring the academic and physical landscape of GW in the process.
“In the last 15 years GW has gone from a regionally-recognized graduate focus school to what it is today, an internationally and nationally recognized school focusing predominantly on undergraduates,” said Michael Akin, director of the new Office of District of Columbia and Foggy Bottom/West End Affairs, established to coordinate and cultivate relationships between the University and its neighbors. “That shift brings with it some changes.”
While Trachtenberg has increased the prestige and academic excellence of the University, a significant portion of locals have grown disillusioned with the monopolistic corporate mentality they think is synonymous with the new face of GW.
“Dr. Trachtenberg recently said that the University is a major real estate developer that teaches some classes on the side. That’s basically it – that they are a major corporation, and not a very nice one, at that,” Cocome said.
He added, “According to our own comprehensive plan, the University is supposed to be a guest within our residential community. Instead, this is a guest that not only ate the dinner, but the entire house.”
In an April 7, 2002 Washington Post article titled “The University that Ate Foggy Bottom,” Christopher Shea wrote, “Anyone who has strolled lately through the GW campus can testify to the changes. It once looked like a random collection of buildings; you could cross it without realizing you’d even been on a campus. Now there’s a picturesque quad ringed by filigreed iron gates; new buildings left and right; the thrum of student life in all its backpacked, nose-pierced glory.”
Foggy Bottom resident Ellie Becker said when she first moved to the neighborhood, she barely felt its presence. For 15 years she ran The Foggy Bottom News, reporting the neighborhood’s struggle to preserve a spirit she says steadily faded in proportion to the University’s growth. Becker retired this year, ending the publication’s 46-year run due what she perceives to be an erosion of the positive neighborly atmosphere resulting from battles with GW.
“The University certainly has a major place in this city, but then they act like they’re the only ones that do have such a place,” she said. “We do, but they don’t really let us have our place. They keep encroaching on our areas by over-enrolling students and not being able to house them.”
Recently, the city demanded the University house 70 percent of undergraduates within campus limits by fall 2006 to deal with the inundation of students into townhouses and apartments. Off-campus options like the Hall on Virginia Avenue do not comply with such regulations.
“We’re not located in the cornfields of Iowa,” Akin said. “We can’t just buy land and develop it. There’s a capacity that we can’t go over and we’re pretty much at the capacity in terms of developable land on campus.”
Disgusted with the negative energy, a group of Foggy Bottom residents joined forces more than two and a half years ago to initiate a forum for friendly communication between the contending populations. Aptly named FRIENDS, the group has expanded to include more than 150 people.
“I think it’s really an organization that I’m glad came into being because there’s so many people in Foggy Bottom who hate the University, and I think there’s just as many who like the University. So we’re trying to build a bridge between Foggy Bottom and the University so we can all be friends,” said Doris Trone, a 17-year Foggy Bottom resident who worked at GW for 30 years. “I think President Trachtenberg has done everything a human being can do to convince these people in Foggy Bottom who hate the University that we’re trying to work with them and we want them to work with us. But of course they don’t want to talk.”
Just as the battle lines continue to be drawn sternly in the urban concrete, Elizabeth Adams continues to saunter the streets of a Washington vastly changed from the sleepy city of her youth.
“Washington has changed, so you can’t expect to say that the University (alone) has changed this particular spot in Washington, because everything has changed,” she said. “Everything has grown and it’s different, entirely different. Nothing stays the same. It doesn’t matter what era you live in or what particular place you live in, it’s not going to stay the same.”
QuickTakes: History of Town-Gown Relations
1910: GW is forced to sell its major downtown property at 15th and H St
1912: University buys its first Foggy Bottom property at 2023 G St., the site of Lisner Hall
1927 – 1959: Cloyd Heck Marvin adds 19 properties to campus during his presidency, instigating concern from residents
1955: Foggy Bottom listed as urban renewal project
1958: Foggy Bottom residents pressure government to cease urban renewal funds to GW
1959 – 2004: Land acquisitions during Lloyd Elliot and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg presidencies make GW the 2nd largest land holder in D.C.