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The Insane Highway Plan That Would Have Bulldozed DC’s Most Charming Neighborhoods

Rendering of the Three Sisters Bridge, which would have linked with interstates and erased three well-known areas of DC. Photograph courtesy of DDOT.

One day this summer, Matt Andrea was eating a tuna tartine at Café Saint-Ex at 14th and T. Across the street, a Room & Board store was selling sleek furniture to occupants of the new condominiums marching up 14th Street. In what used to be a crime-ridden corridor, eateries up and down the block offered the culinary bounty of modern-day Washington: artisanal burgers, regional Thai cuisine, an array of craft beers.

Unbeknownst to the diners and the shoppers and the moms pushing strollers along the teeming sidewalks, Andrea, a retired banker, is an author of the scene. There’s a pretty good argument that none of the budding urbanism that has turned the neighborhood into a place where people spend a million dollars on a rowhouse would exist if not for people like Matt Andrea.

Back in 1969—a year after rioters reacted to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. by torching 14th Street from U Street to Massachusetts Avenue—Andrea had recently graduated from Georgetown University and settled near campus. Just above Georgetown, momentum was building to construct the Three Sisters Bridge over the Potomac, an expanse designed to carry cars and trucks over highways through the District. Andrea joined the battle against the bridge. “If those highways had come to fruition, there would be no U Street,” he says between bites. “Shaw would be chopped up.”

Andrea is understating the case by a factor of several neighborhoods. Brookland would likely not exist as we know it. Nor would Brightwood, Petworth, Fort Totten, Takoma, West Potomac Park, Georgetown, or the Palisades. Room & Board would be an asphalt shoulder. “It would have carved the city up in such a way that there would have been no impetus for the revitalization we are seeing now,” says Andrea. “Who wants to live on the edge of a superhighway?”

No one. Or at least not the kind of folks who have reversed Washington’s population exodus over the past ten years. And not the ones who lived here in 1969, either. Today it’s easy, especially for newcomers, to see the District’s rowhouse charm as a kind of historic inevitability.

The lost story of Matt Andrea shows that was hardly the case.

• • •

There was a time, not so long ago, when pedestrian neighborhoods were considered the enemy of progress rather than the charming bedrock of resurrected downtowns.

For most of the 1950s and ’60s, freeways decimated major American cities from Boston to LA. In New York, Jane Jacobs became a founder of New Urbanism by defending Greenwich Village against the predatory highway builder Robert Moses. As the Capital Beltway took shape around DC, highway engineers, acting at the urging of Congress, came up with various designs to pass under, over, and through the city. Some drew plans to connect Virginia’s I-66 to I-95 inside the District with a spoke-and-wheel system of roads. Others imagined sinuous parkways along the Potomac and a network that would join with two eight-lane highways inside DC. The centerpiece was the Three Sisters Bridge, to be built on a set of tiny islands in the Potomac, where Canal and Foxhall roads meet near Foundry Branch.

Washington was ripe for carving. Whole blocks torched in the ’68 riots stood empty. Schools were a mess, the streets were unsafe, the murder rate more than double what we’re used to today. Seventy percent of the city was African-American, much of it poor.

“In the eyes of these congressmen, the city was expendable,” Matt Andrea says. “They had little regard for people who lived here.”

The Three Sisters Bridge would have erased the Friends Meeting House in Dupont (1), a Swath of now-vibrant U Street (2), and what today is Bloomingdale’s Big Bear Cafe (3).

The cabal of Southern congressmen who oversaw DC couldn’t understand why there was no easy way through this wasteland. The Center Leg Freeway, which ran across the 14th Street Bridge under the Mall, stopped abruptly at Massachusetts Avenue. The Anacostia Freeway tied into the bucolic Baltimore-Washington Parkway rather than an interstate. The Whitehurst Freeway, linking the Key Bridge to K Street, was more stubby eyesore than expressway.

Representative William Huston Natcher, elected in 1953 from central Kentucky, was particularly vexed by this lack of asphalt. Natcher loved highways and the funding his appropriations-committee perch allowed him to dole out. (Today a 70-mile parkway and a bridge over the Ohio River bear his name.) In 1961, the Democrat had become chairman of the House Appropriations DC subcommittee, a position he took as a charge to install endless multi-lane roads, with the attendant loops and ramps.

A coalition of local residents had fought Natcher’s plans for years. In a racially riven city, the opponents were a rare example of political integration: Middle-class blacks from Brookland and Fort Totten threw in with wealthy whites from Foxhall and Tenleytown. The Citizens Association of Georgetown added clout. They all banded together as the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis.

• • •

The potent odd couple of Sammie Abbott and Reginald H. Booker became the face of the ECTC.

Booker, a tall, erect African-American who worked for the General Services Administration, had moved from Philadelphia at age nine, only to see his home near the Navy Yard bulldozed in the name of urban revitalization. Abbott was a short, pugnacious graphic designer and labor organizer whose family of Arab Christians had fled persecution in Syria. “I’m perpetually a mad person,” the future Takoma Park mayor once told the Washington Post. “I hate injustice….I’m living to fight the goddamned thing. I’m too mad to sleep.”

Sammie Abbott. Photograph via DC Public Library/Washington Star.

Tensions between the ECTC and the authorities came to a head in the summer of 1969. Months before, the District had condemned dozens of homes in Brookland to make way for the North Central Freeway, a planned ten-lane expressway from Union Station to Silver Spring.

That June, Abbott and Booker, under a banner reading white man’s roads through black men’s homes, broke into the condemned houses, cleaned them up, and invited in families needing shelter. Both were charged with illegal entry, but the city relented and reopened the buildings.

In Congress, Natcher pinned his hopes on the Three Sisters Bridge. He figured that, once built, it would break open the gate for the rest of the highways. And he had a card to play: The newly formed Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had recently approved plans for a 97-mile regional Metrorail system. It was up to Natcher’s committee to appropriate funds. Natcher put down his marker. No Three Sisters Bridge, no Metro funds.

In an August 1969 meeting, the DC Council, which had been leaning toward blocking the bridge, voted to approve it. People threw punches. Chairs flew. Police arrested 14. The Evening Star called the incident “a riot.” But Natcher had his bridge, and construction began in September.

• • •

The Georgetown University crew team’s training run down the Potomac River started at the Three Sisters, passed under the Key Bridge, and ended at Thompson Boat Center. “I got to learn that stretch of the river like the back of my hand,” says Andrea, who had been the team’s coxswain. After attending a Georgetown citizens-association meeting where the Three Sisters Bridge was discussed, Andrea paid Sammie Abbott a visit in his Dupont Circle studio.

“What if students from Georgetown and other campuses occupied the islands?” Andrea asked. “Could we get support from Brookland and other civic associations?”

Brookland homes condemned to make way for a highway. Photograph by Brig Cabe/DC Public Library Washington Star Collection/Washington Post.

Abbott loved the idea and produced leaflets calling on students to protest the bridge construction. Andrea distributed them around campus on Friday, October 10. That weekend, a band of students rowed out to the boulders and set up camp as Abbott, Booker, and civic-association members picnicked and cheered them on from the riverbank. The Washington Star and the Post played the story on their front pages.

For two days, peace and picnics prevailed. Early Monday morning, workers arrived to start setting pipes and pylons for the bridge. About 20 demonstrators paddled out to the construction site and offered them coffee. When the workmen fired up their equipment, students hopped into the buckets. After the foreman ordered his crew to move some large pipes, demonstrators crawled inside them. According to the Hoya campus paper, the foreman told his crane operator to lift the pipes and drop them in the river. “I get paid to work,” the worker said, “not to hurt people.”

When police arrived, the demonstrators left, but the next morning twice as many appeared. More police arrived, and the protesters walked off again. Deputy police chief Owen Davis warned that they’d be arrested if they returned.

On Wednesday morning, October 15, construction workers were surprised to find the site devoid of protesters when they drove to the river at 8 am. But at 10, a crowd of 200 demonstrators swarmed onto it from a tunnel under Canal Road. Police arrived within minutes, backed by paddy wagons, and made more than 130 arrests, but the unrest continued.

On October 20, Georgetown junior Phil Ptacin was sitting in front of a bulldozer, defying an order from Davis to “disperse or face arrest” when the police began to wade into the crowd. A policeman hit one of Ptacin’s friends on the back with his baton. Ptacin grabbed the cop’s arm and said: “Hey, take it easy.” Another cop clubbed him on the head.

Ptacin vaguely recalls being driven to jail and booked. He remembers his roommate driving him home. It all became very real when his picture was on the front page of the next day’s Post, blood streaming down his face.

The protests finally ended on November 2 after two construction trailers were firebombed with Molotov cocktails. No one was injured, but, says Andrea, “that was too radical. It wasn’t our thing. We backed off after that. We had made our point.”

The demonstrations, however, had done their work. Natcher’s highway plan and the havoc it would wreak made the papers every day for a week. DC residents were informed and alarmed. In a nonbinding referendum held in November, 85 percent of District voters decided against the bridge.

• • •

In a different city, perhaps, Congress’s push for the highways would have unraveled quickly. But despite the protesters’ attempt to link the highway issue to home rule, the popular will counted for little against the power of Congress. Enter the lawyers. While the drama was playing out at the bridge, the DC Federation of Civic Associations was filing suit against US Transportation Secretary John Volpe, alleging that politics, not a needs assessment required by federal law, had prompted decisions about the bridge. On August 27, 1970, John Sirica, chief judge of the US District Court, agreed and ordered a halt to construction. Pressure from Maryland’s congressional delegation and President Nixon finally forced Natcher to unlock the funds in the fall of 1971, after a contentious floor debate that the Post called “rare and stunning.”

The Three Sisters Bridge lived on, at least on paper; in 1972, Hurricane Agnes swept away the unfinished footings. That same year, the Supreme Court let Sirica’s ruling stand. In May 1977, the Department of Transportation allowed the District to delete the Three Sisters Bridge from its master plan. “This time it looks unusually permanent,” the Post wrote.

Today Washington is one of the American cities least scarred by freeways. And its historic neighborhoods—if not its traffic—are one of the District’s major selling points.

The fight over the Three Sisters Bridge might be remembered as the last clean win in Washington’s power struggle with its federal minders. As the neighborhoods that the freeways might have bulldozed have been reborn, DC has adopted an optimistic swagger, passing a referendum in 2013 to gain budget autonomy. But Congress and the federal courts have repeatedly quashed city initiatives—from gun control to, most recently, legalization of marijuana—without incurring moral outrage on a scale of the fight over the Three Sisters Bridge.

“I still have a knot on my head,” says Phil Ptacin, now a family doctor in Michigan. “I think of those days with pride.”

Matt Andrea, who keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clips from those days, says he’s behind on repairs to the rowhouse he owns on 13th Street in Shaw. “I wouldn’t be having this problem if Natcher had built his highway through here. Let’s chalk it up to a good problem to have.”

Editor at large Harry Jaffe can be reached at hsjaffe@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in our October 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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