Being perhaps a bit off the beam, but also not willing to wait an hour for a bus ride to go about a dozen blocks, I decided to walk home from the office yesterday despite a heat index of 115F (that’s 46.1 centigrade for my non-American readers.) Upon arriving at the manse, I was grateful that previous centuries of Georgetowners had planted large old trees, and built shady porticoes for me to walk under, thereby avoid being in the full-on, baking light of the afternoon sun. However, much as today’s Georgetown prides itself on being a gracious and sophisticated enclave in the capital, it tends to sweep under the rug some of the more disdainful assessments of its past.
When First Lady Abigail Adams arrived in Washington in November 1800 to take up residence at the White House, she did not look favorably upon either Georgetown or its inhabitants. As the nearest provider of provisions and household needs to the new Executive Mansion, she would have to be visiting Georgetown or dealing with Georgetowners on a regular basis. She wrote to a friend:
“I have been to Georgetown and felt all that [a friend] described when she was a resident there. It is the very dirtiest hole I ever saw for a place of any trade, or respectability of inhabitants…There must be a worse place than even Georgetown, that I would not reside in for three Months.”
This may seem a strange assessment, for in my own experience I have met many people who would not mind residing in Georgetown for three years or more, let alone three months. It is possible that, in the bleak end of autumn, and having to leave her comfortable home in well-established Philadelphia, Mrs. Adams approached her new digs with some prejudice. And the portions of Georgetown below what is now M Street were always a bit seedy, since this part of the village was once an active port and manufacturing area
However, things had improved quite a bit by the time Charles Dickens paid a visit several decades later, in the spring of 1842:
“At Georgetown, in the suburbs, there is a Jesuit College; delightfully situated, and, so far as I had an opportunity of seeing, well-managed. Many persons who are not members of the Romish Church, avail themselves, I believe, of these institutions, and of the advantageous opportunities they afford for the education of their children. The heights of this neighbourhood, above the Potomac River, are very picturesque: and are free, I should conceive, from some of the insalubrities of Washington. The air, at that elevation, was quite cool and refreshing, when in the city it was burning hot.”
Today of course, Georgetowners tend to focus on the more glamorous aspects of life here, forgetting that this was not always a posh enclave. That it is now, apart from certain aspects of the commercial district, is to its credit. However comparing the accounts of Abigail Adams and Charles Dickens is interesting and illustrative, for it does show us what a remarkable transformation the village underwent in a comparatively short period of time.