Swampoodle: The neighborhood behind the play

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(Photo: Courtesy Kathleen Lane/TBD)

Denis A. Lane was a postal worker who delivered mail to the White House and occasionally wrote for the Washington Post. His brother, Martin Lane, was one of the most notorious gangsters referenced in historical accounts of Swampoodle, a vanished Irish neighborhood in the District being celebrated this week in a play at the Uline Arena.

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Though Denis was the writer, Martin made the headlines.

A Washington Post story from November 16, 1896, reads: “Martin Lane, Martin Lane, jr., his son, and John Waller, were arrested yesterday afternoon, charged with a unique form of petty larceny. The three men…paid a late visit Saturday night to the bottling establishment…just before the proprietor closed up for the night. They managed to gain an entrance…and then proceeded to fill up on the choicest intoxicating beverages in the establishment. For obvious reasons the warrant on which they were arrested does not give a detailed statement of what they drank.”

Local papers emphasized roguish stories like Martin’s, frequently highlighting the residents’ fondness for “booze and roughhouse.” Reports of gambling, prostitution, larceny, and rough gangs wreaking havoc in the neighborhood were not uncommon.

Jane Freundel Levey, who oversees the history-related products and programs of Cultural Tourism DC, cautions against the sort of characterization of Swampoodle found on the Union Station plaque that commemorates the neighborhood as an “infamous Irish shantytown.”

“I think it’s overstating it,” Levey says. “Nineteenth-century journalism was so hyped, looking for that next exciting story, and they tended to exaggerate a lot of things.”

Swampoodle was an Irish immigrant enclave that formed in the late 19th century and never really overcame the construction of Union Station in 1907 that tore through the heart of its community.

Bits and pieces of the neighborhood survived until the 1960s, but its start and end — like many pieces of its story — are amorphous. The neighborhood’s strange history can be seen through the mixture of people who lived there — builders, writers, and lawyers, but also drunks, gangsters, and thieves.

Established by desperate migrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, the neighborhood swelled in the shadow of the Capitol. Its name may have been slang for swamp-puddle, the way the early Irish residents saw the then down-and-out swath of land where they erected the wooden shacks they would call home.

Swampoodle’s boundaries were loosely defined, but most people place it between New Jersey Avenue on the west, along the several blocks bounding H Street NW, from F Street to the south to about K Street to the north, and east to about 1st or 2nd Street NE. Tiber Creek entered the area between North Capitol Street and 1st Street NE, and together with the Capitol building helped physically form a closed society that separated Swampoodle from the rest of the residential city and allowed a distinct community to take shape. Today, old Swampoodle includes parts of Near Northeast, Capitol Hill, NoMa and H Street NE.

Linda Brick is a native Washingtonian who worked for the federal government for 33 years. Her father, Edward Aloysius Brick, was a statistician at the Census Bureau for most of his career and grew up in Swampoodle. Stories she heard were of a tight-knit community where residents were protected, sheltered from a larger community that wasn’t always accepting.

“It was a safe area, not just in the sense of crime, but they were all well aware that there were places in town where Irish Catholics weren’t welcome, and this wasn’t one of them,” Brick says. “If someone got in trouble, there was another potato in the pot and a place to sleep.”

Levey says for a trusted perspective on the neighborhood’s character, one should look no further than the Washington historian John Clagett Proctor, who wrote about Swampoodle’s residents in the Washington Star on March 20, 1949: “That they sent their children to school and educated them is evident, since many of them became representative Washington men and women, and this conclusively shows that they were not as black as painted.”

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