Community History Politics — 30 June 2011

For more than two centuries the Potomac has flowed as Alexandrias lifeblood, carrying with it traders, sailors, soldiers, gamblers and prostitutes and for a time transforming the city into a major port of call. 

The bustling fisheries, wharfs and factories have long since disappeared, giving way to the shops and restaurants of King Street, waterfront housing developments and aging warehouses. For about two years, city officials and residents have gone back and forth on what the waterfront of the future will look like, a roiling debate over just three miles of Alexandria.  

Decades before this latest debate began another Alexandrian, Frederick Tilp, looked ahead to the future of the waterway with apprehension. After a lifetime spent in and around the river, Tilp penned This Was Potomac River in 1978, a recounting of the river since its settlement by Europeans. 

Alexandria, Tilp writes, is located upon the most perfect site of any town on the East Coast. A major American Indian trade route ran through what would become the city and Europeans bartered with the indigenous population on the site as early as 1619, according to Tilp. 

Alexandrias rise as a port began long before the citys founding in 1749. Decades earlier, tobaccos rise as Virginias cash crop necessitated the building of a warehouse at the foot of Oronoco Street. By the 1770s, ocean-going vessels from across the western hemisphere regularly docked in Alexandria. The city rivaled Boston and New York as one of the New Worlds busiest ports. 

The port of Alexandria has seldom less than twenty-three square-rigged vessels in it and often ten more, Lund Washington wrote to George Washington, describing the harbor during that period.

But the good times didnt last. Devastating fires, outbreaks of disease, the Civil War and competition with Baltimore to the north conspired in the decline of the port city.

Around the dawn of the 20th century, the waterfront underwent a rebirth as an industrial port. Shipyards sprung up, including the Agnew Yard and the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation; the Naval Torpedo Factory began manufacturing weapons of war; and the Ford Motor Company arrived on the citys shores in 1932. 
    Gamblers and prostitutes flooded the river as well, anchoring floating casinos and whorehouses from Jones Point in the south to Rosslyn in the north. 

But as Tilp released his account of the rivers history, the waterfront had again fallen on hard times. The last water-related business in operation on Alexandrias shoreline was the Robinson Terminal, Tilp wrote. 

Lower King Street and the waterfront were a far cry from the tourist-logged shops, restaurants and parks today, recalls Pam Cressey, a city archeologist. Founders Park was a scraggly patch of land where grass struggled to grow, she said, and empty lots dotted with weeds and abandoned cars blighted the landscape. 

Marian Van Landingham, credited with the revitalization of the Torpedo Factory as an art center, remembers those days well.     

The docks behind the Torpedo Factory were rotting down, she said. The site north of the Torpedo Factory where Founders Park is was just a field with tall, scraggly grass on it.

There was no access to the water, cyclone fencing separated residents from the river, she said. The only points of interest on Union Street were a clothing store and the Seaport Inn, where the Starbucks is today, according to Van Landingham. 

That changed under Mayor Charles E. Beatley. After taking the city council on a trip to Europe to see how cities across the Atlantic treated their waterfronts officials created Founders Park and built walking trails along the shoreline. 

Around the same time, Van Landingham was experimenting with turning the Torpedo Factory into a home for artists. By turning the munitions plant into a destination, new life came to the waterfront, she said. 

We began to attract [visitors] and actually the presence of the factory brought tourists in and more shops began to show up on lower King Street, Van Landingham said. Its no question the factory helped attract crowds who helped bring in the shops.

As Van Landingham refurbished the Torpedo Factory, Tilp was petitioning the city to turn the waterfront into an arboretum of native trees. Its a vision current resident Al Kalvaitis hopes city officials will consider as they plan the waterfronts future.

Kalvaitis, a disciple of Tilp of sorts, has taken up the same call. He travels the shore on foot or by bicycle daily and views the citys plan for a revitalized waterfront, including hotels, with weary eyes. Theres a balance to be struck between the waterfront as a commercial area and the green space Tilp argued for years ago, he said.

I see [the Potomac] all four seasons and its just a wonderful experience. Id hate to have it blocked off by extensive over-commercialization, Kalvaitis said. Its a place [where] you cant avoid history and I think sometimes we ignore history because weve got so much going on in the present.

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