By Brendan Hornbostel

August 29, 2023

This is part of a series of blog posts on crime and punishment in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, covering histories of violence, law, criminal justice, and incarceration. Read the posts in this series here and find the CFP here.

As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C., is a place overdetermined with meaning. Simultaneously a symbol for the nation and a longtime major Black city without political representation, Washington, D.C., has appeared to many—in the words of blues poet Gil Scott-Heron—as “a ball of contradictions” between affluent white political elites “who come and go” and the predominantly Black poor and working-class “who’ve got to stay.”[1] Historians have often tried to solve this paradox by separating histories of the federal government in Washington from those of metropolitan D.C. as the “city beyond the monuments.”[2] In doing so, however, these histories have obscured the intertwined development of Washington as the headquarters of U.S. state power and the longstanding Black metropolis of D.C. as a “captive colony.”[3] Perhaps nowhere is this entanglement better illustrated than the McMillan Plan’s Progressive-Era redesign of “Imperial Washington” made possible by the racialized slum clearance of the Metropolitan Police Department’s “war on alleys” at the turn of the twentieth century.[4]

Aerial view showing Washington Monument and white buildings along straight streets
Figure 1: As a central motif of the “City Imperial” movement, the McMillan Plan’s National Mall design, with its open boulevard surrounded by government buildings, was exported and adapted to Manila in the Philippines and Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone. Francis L.V. Hoppin, Senate Park Commission Report No. 20, Commission of Fine Arts, 1902, Plate VIII.

Emerging from the political dealings of Michigan Senator James McMillan, the Senate Park Commission’s 1902 report, “The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia,” better known as the McMillan Plan, set the standard for the modern development of Washington.[5] Staffed by three of the most important architectural alumni of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.—the Commission’s McMillan Plan was an attempt, in the words of its secretary Charles Moore, to make “the ephemeral White City” of the Chicago world’s fair into an “Eternal City” in Washington.[6] In the wake of the 1898 Spanish-American War that founded a U.S. empire in the Pacific and Caribbean, the McMillan Plan not only catalyzed a national City Beautiful movement of urban planning, but importantly, presented downtown Washington as a “City Imperial” model for subsequent U.S. imperial development in the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone (Figures 1-3).[7]

Tan map depicting buildings and roads with spoke patterns
Figure 2: Detail of the “New Luneta” in Daniel Burnham, “Manila, P.I., Plan of Improvements,” 1905, Stanford University Libraries.
Black and white photograph of uniform white buildings in front of a hill
Figure 3: Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, ca. 1910-1914, Library of Congress.

While the initial 1791 L’Enfant Plan had envisioned Washington as an architectural “microcosm” of the United States, with diagonal streets bearing the names of states radiating out to the city and the National Mall as a “Grand Avenue” embodying the balance of power between the Capitol and the White House, the McMillan Plan updated this architectural embodiment for the new U.S. empire (Figure 4).[8] In addition to its most celebrated achievements of Union Station and the Lincoln Memorial, the McMillan Plan envisioned housing the United States’ burgeoning imperial administration alongside the National Mall in what is today Federal Triangle and Federal Center (Figure 5). But standing in the way, quite literally, of the McMillan Plan, were the mostly poor and working-class Black neighborhoods of Murder Bay along Pennsylvania Avenue and The Island in Southwest D.C.[9]

Basic map showing Potomac River and spoke-shaped roads
Figure 4: L’Enfant Plan as modified by Andrew Ellicott, National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1792, Library of Congress.
Diagram showing building sites in present-day National Mall area
Figure 5: “Diagram of a Portion of City Showing Proposed Sites for Future Public Buildings,” Senate Park Commission, December 1901.

By centering these Black communities of downtown D.C., and the immense police violence undertaken to remove them in order to realize the McMillan Plan, we can arrive at a greater understanding of the intertwined development of imperial Washington and colonial D.C. For those residents who lived, struggled, and survived in the inhabited “blind alleys” of Murder Bay (present-day Federal Triangle) and The Island (present-day Federal Center), the 1902 McMillan Plan was merely one battle in a generations-long “war on alleys” carried out by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).[10] Since the Civil War, the MPD had defined itself through the criminalization of the informal economies of mutual aid, sex work, and community defense first developed by fugitive slaves and Irish immigrants in Murder Bay and Southwest D.C.[11] By the time of the McMillan Plan, the MPD had become the behind-the-scenes engine for local urban policy, from housing, education, and labor laws to the reorganization of public charity, the invention of juvenile delinquency, and the professionalization of social work—positioning the policing of Black alley-dwellers as the gravitational center for making D.C. a model of Progressive-Era social reform (Figure 6).[12] Rather than seeing the McMillan Plan as failing to address the social inequalities of the “city beyond the monuments,” taking an alternative view of downtown Washington helps us reframe MPD’s alley policing at the center, both literally and symbolically, of U.S. state-building at the turn of the twentieth century.[13]

Diagram labeled "The Blind Alley of Washington, D.C. Seclusion Breeding Crime And Disease to kill the alley inmates and infect the street residents"
Figure 6: Thomas Jesse Jones, Directory of the Inhabited Alleys of Washington, D.C., 1912.

Two Views from the National Mall

To get a more concrete understanding of the way the MPD’s alley policing made literal space for the McMillan Plan’s symbolic and administrative headquarters of U.S. empire, we can juxtapose the classic artistic depiction of the McMillan Plan with a lesser-known map of MPD alley and brothel raids in downtown D.C. As an essential propaganda tool that accompanied the Senate Park Commission report in museums, magazines, and governmental reports, the drawings and paintings produced for the McMillan Plan imagined the National Mall as a fortified space bordered by yet-unrealized plans for future government offices (Figure 7).[14] In the words of chief architect Daniel Burnham, the McMillan Plan was as much a celebration of “national purpose” to rival the imperial capitals of Europe as it was a local project “to remove and forever keep from view the ugly, the unsightly, and even the commonplace.”[15] However, the McMillan Plan’s fabulous and colorful representations remained, in the words of architectural critic Lewis Mumford, “a remedy on paper” that could only be made real after three-plus decades of politicking, propaganda, and, most importantly, policing.[16] For a more realistic representation, a contemporary map created by MPD Chief Richard Sylvester provides an alternative window into the incredible levels of police violence that helped realize the modern capital of imperial Washington.

Color map showing streets and buildings of National Mall
Figure 7: In a way most fitting, the most commonly referenced illustration of the McMillan Plan—adorning everything from the Commission’s Wikipedia page to the District of Columbia Department of Transportation “Heritage Trail” placards on Pennsylvania Avenue—is an adaptation, not from the original Senate Park Commission report, but from the National Capital Park and Planning Commission founded in the 1920s. “The McMillan Plan: 1901 – The Mall,” National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

In December 1912, Chief Sylvester stood before Congress and laid claim to much of the Progressive-Era reform victories in D.C.[17] As the longest-serving police chief in MPD history, Sylvester made a name for himself as a “pioneering” police reformer by creating the International Association of Chiefs of Police to combat the global insurgency of anarchism while inaugurating the earliest remnants of a national security state from his municipal office in Washington.[18] So while taking a victory lap at a Senate hearing considering a new law to fight the ubiquitous “houses of ill fame” standing in the way of the McMillan Plan in the alleys of Murder Bay and Southwest, Sylvester could not help but provide a rare “object lesson” of his alley war tenure (Figure 8).[19] Outlining a decade and a half of alley raids concentrated on both sides of the Mall, Sylvester’s map presents a striking juxtaposition to the “remedy on paper” of most McMillan Plan illustrations.

Map of streets and buildings in DC surrounding National Mall area
Figure 8: “Map to Accompany Remarks of Major Richard Sylvester,” in Abatement of Houses of Ill Fame, Government Printing Office, 1913.

In Sylvester’s map, the McMillan Plan’s grand design for downtown Washington is replaced with hundreds of violent raids, arrests, and condemnations enacted by the MPD to “purify conditions” and eliminate alley life.[20] In the Murder Bay neighborhood, the contemporary headquarters of the Department of Justice, the Agency for International Development, and the National Archives, Sylvester reported the elimination of 70 homes in Graham Alley and Slater Alley. Closer to the Capitol, where local, appellate, and federal courthouses now lie, the MPD succeeded in clearing 35 homes in Marble Alley, Kimball Alley, and Jackson Hall Alley. Of the 158 total homes made unlivable by D.C. police starting in the 1890s, Sylvester’s map reserved special designation for those “Degraded Negroes” of the Southwest neighborhoods of Louse Alley and Willow Tree Alley, where, despite closing 41 homes, almost a hundred alley dwellings of “the lowest class of negroes” remained to haunt the construction of future museum grounds, congressional buildings, and temporary War Department offices (Figure 9).[21] Sylvester’s racist descriptor of Black alley-dwellers as “in their animal state” mirrored the McMillan Plan’s own description of the “degraded” and “degenerated” neighborhoods surrounding the National Mall. The language importantly linked domestic policing in D.C. to the paternalistic, Social Darwinist justifications of U.S. imperialism abroad.[22] By re-mapping the MPD’s “war on alleys” back onto the McMillan Plan’s making of modern Washington, then, we can recast “the city beyond the monuments” as a much more intertwined development between the imperial power from Washington and the racist domestic colonial rule in D.C. Or, as Mumford put it matter-of-factly in his 1924 excoriation of the McMillan Plan: “Can anyone contemplate this scene and still fancy that imperialism was nothing more than a move for foreign markets and territories of exploitation?”[23]

Black and white photograph of people standing in an alley with Capitol Building dome in background
Figure 9: Lewis Hine, “Louse Alley,” in Charles Weller, Neglected Neighbors: Stories of Life in the Alleys, Tenements and Shanties of the National Capital (John C. Winston Company, 1909).

Although downtown Washington today more clearly resembles the drawings of the McMillan Plan, we ought to remember the D.C. alley communities who made cities before—and truly beyond—the monuments. While it remains near impossible to recover the words and ideas of alley-dwellers uncontaminated by the distortions of police archives and social reformer studies, we can still read against the grain of those who only saw disorder in order to appreciate the resistance of those local communities that were policed out of existence to build the imperial capital of the world (Figure 10).[24] For example, where Sylvester and reformers like Charles Weller saw “neglected neighbors” in need of paternalism and punishment, we might find newspaper references to traditions of mutual aid networks of alley residents helping to “bury their dead without assistance,” providing “medical attention for the ill,” and collecting “money to secure bail.”[25] And where Weller and other reformers saw “hidden inner worlds” impervious to police control, we might reveal news coverage of community defense strategies wherein “the arrest of a member of the fraternity is the signal for a general attack by the alley itself.”[26] And when the survival of alley communities in Murder Bay and Southwest D.C. continued to haunt the plans of the most powerful men of Washington for existing, in the words of Labor Commissioner Charles Patrick Neill, “without the law,” we should take seriously the words of an elderly Black alley resident in 1913 when faced with another round of alley reform: “I reckon some folks would a’ gone to law, but I ain’t never been the going-to-law kind.”[27]

Newspaper front page with three photos of alleys and a photo of a man in center
Figure 10: In articles like this one, made possible by police escort (hence the centerfold picture of MPD Chief Richard Sylvester), we get rare glimpses into the lives and strategies of D.C. alley-dwellers. “The Toughest Street Within the Borders of Washington,” Washington Times, Sep. 11, 1904.

[1] Gil Scott-Heron, “Washington, D.C.,” Moving Target (Arista Records, 1982).

[2] Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 13. Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, “Beyond the Monuments: Race and American Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” Perspectives on History, October 1, 2017.

[3] Sam Smith, Captive Capital: Colonial Life in Modern Washington (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974).

[4] “The New Washington: A City to Be Bewildering in Its Magnificence,” Washington Evening Star, May 9, 1902, 2. Charles F. Weller, “Neglected Neighbors In the Alleys, Shacks and Tenements of the National Capital,” Charities and the Commons 15, no. 22 (March 3, 1906): 770n1.

[5] Charles Moore, ed., The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902). Howard Gillette, Jr., Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 88-129.

[6] Charles Moore, “The Beautification of Washington,” Box 1, Papers of and Relating to Charles Moore, 1913-1942, RG 66: Commission of Fine Arts, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[7] Thomas S. Hines, “The Imperial Mall: The City Beautiful Movement and the Washington Plan of 1901-1902,” in The Mall in Washington, 1791–1991, ed. Richard Longstreth (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991), 78-99. Christopher Vernon, “Daniel Hudson Burnham and the American City Imperial,” Thesis Eleven 123, no. 1 (2014): 80-105.

[8] Wolfgang Sonne, “The Capital City as a Microcosm of the State: The Case of Washington,” Thresholds 30 (Summer 2005): 80-87. Jon A. Peterson, “The Nation’s First Comprehensive Plan: A Political Analysis of the McMillan Plan for Washington, D.C., 1900-1902,” Journal of the American Planning Association 51 (Spring 1985): 137.

[9] While white residents reportedly made up 65 percent of alley-dwellers in 1858, alleys had housed a majority Black population since the Civil War. Beginning in 1897, the MPD undertook almost yearly census enumerations of D.C.’s “alleys and courts,” reporting a high of 19,076 in 1905, with Black residents making up 90 percent of alley residents. William Boyd, comp., Boyd’s Washington and Georgetown Directory (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1858). District of Columbia Commissioners, Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia for the Year Ended June 30, 1905 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1905), 418.

[10] My use of this term is derived from social reformers and newspaper coverage, as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s contemporaneous calls for a “war against crime” and MPD Chief Richard Sylvester’s “active warfare on crime.” Weller, “Neglected Neighbors,” 770n1. “City Club Women Visit Alley Homes,” Washington Evening Star, November 25, 1931, B1. Marilyn S. Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 87-113. “Recalls Wicked Days: Washington Is a Model Compared to Former Years,” Washington Post, September 9, 1903, 11.

[11] Kenneth G. Alfers, Law and Order in the Capital City: A History of the Washington Police, 1800-1886 (Washington, D.C.: George Washington University Press, 1976). Donald E. Press, “South of the Avenue: From Murder Bay to the Federal Triangle,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 51 (1984): 51-70.

[12] James A. Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 1-56. Robert Harrison, “The Ideal of a ‘Model City’: Federal Social Policy for the District of Columbia, 1905-1909,” Journal of Urban History 15, no. 4 (August 1989): 435-463.

[13] Charles Moore even attributed the 1897 investigation into D.C. charities and reformatory institutions as a catalyst for the McMillan Plan in two unpublished manuscripts: Charles Moore, “Makers of Washington,” 97-107, Box 22, Charles Moore Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; and Charles Moore, “Autobiography of Charles Moore,” 58-70, Box 1, Papers of and Relating to Charles Moore.

[14] Charles Moore, ed., Park Improvement Papers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903). Charles Moore, “The Improvement of Washington City,” Century Magazine 63, no. 4 (February 1902): 621-628. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., “Beautifying a City,” Independent 54 (August 2, 1902): 1870-1877. Elbert F. Baldwin, “Washington Fifty Years Hence,” Outlook 70 (April 1902): 817-819. Charles Zueblin, “Washington, Old and New,” Chautaquan 39, no. 2 (April 1904): 156-167. William Howard Taft, “Washington: Its Beginning, Its Growth, and Its Future,” National Geographic Magazine 27, no. 3 (March 1915): 221-292.

[15] Daniel Burnham, “White City and Capital City,” Century Magazine 63, no. 4 (February 1902): 620.

[16] Lewis Mumford, Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924), 133.

[17] A survey of Sylvester’s reports from the Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia reveals the MPD chief’s pioneering advocacy of countless Progressive-Era reforms, including youth diversion (1899: 199), truant officers (1900: 172-173), public playgrounds (1900: 191), modern prison construction (1901: 182-183), probation (1903: 213-215), public gymnasiums (1903: 224), and alley house condemnation (1906: 668-669).

[18] Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 134. Richard Bach Jensen, “The United States, International Policing and the War against Anarchist Terrorism, 1900-1914,” Terrorism and Political Violence 13, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 15-46.

[19] Statement of Mr. Richard Sylvester, Major and Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, District of Columbia, in Abatement of Houses of Ill Fame: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the District of Columbia, United States Senate, December 19, 1912 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1913), 23-24. Donna J. Seifert, “Within Site of the White House: The Archaeology of Working Women,” Historical Archaeology 25, no. 4 (1991): 92-93.

[20] Sylvester, Abatement of Houses of Ill Fame, 28.

[21] Sylvester, Abatement of Houses of Ill Fame, 28-29. For identification of alleys, see Thomas Jesse Jones, Directory of the Inhabited Alleys of Washington D.C. (Washington, D.C.: Monday Evening Club, 1912); Sanborn Map Company, Washington, District of Columbia (1888) and Washington, District of Columbia (1904), Library of Congress; and James Borchert, “Visual Survey of Existing Inhabited Alleys, Washington, D.C.,” July 1972, Container 4, James A. Borchert Collection, Historical Society of Washington D.C.

[22] Sylvester, Abatement of Houses of Ill Fame, 23. Moore, The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, 69-71. Paul J. Pelz, “The Grouping of Public Buildings in Washington,” in Papers Relating to the Improvement of Washington, ed. Glenn Brown (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901), 87-91. Theodore Roosevelt, “President’s Annual Message,” Congressional Record, December 6, 1904, 13. Moore, “The Beautification of Washington,” 2155.

[23] Mumford, Sticks and Stones, 135.

[24] James Borchert, “Alley Life in Washington: An Analysis of 600 Photographs,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 49 (1973/1974): 244-259.

[25] Charles F. Weller, Neglected Neighbors: Stories of Life in the Alleys, Tenements and Shanties of the National Capital (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1909). “The Toughest Street Within the Borders of Washington,” Washington Times, September 11, 1904, C3.

[26] Weller, “Neglected Neighbors,” 765. “The Toughest Street Within the Borders of Washington,” C3. Grace Vawter Bicknell, The Inhabited Alleys of Washington, D.C. (Washington, D.C.: National Civic Federation, 1912).

[27] Charles P. Neill, “Child Labor at the National Capital,” Charities and the Commons 15, no. 22 (March 3, 1906): 798. Edith Elmer Wood, “Four Washington Alleys,” Survey 31 (December 6, 1913): 250.

Brendan Hornbostel
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Brendan Hornbostel (they/them) is a PhD candidate in the History Department at George Washington University. Their dissertation research examines the history of policing in Washington, D.C., as a key site of U.S. state power in relation to DC’s simultaneous status as a racial-domestic colony and the world’s imperial capital.

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