This article originally appeared on September 8, 2021, published by HillRag.
Buzzard Point’s current status as Washington’s newest hot property belies its peculiar history. For nearly two centuries its main attraction was the US Arsenal, now Fort Lesley J. McNair, which manufactured arms and was the venue for the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Next door was a factory that boiled animal carcasses for fertilizer. How Buzzard Point went from making weapons and cooking horses to kicking goals at Audi Field requires a walk along one of history’s less–traveled paths.
A Foreign Land
A newspaper story from the Washington Evening Star in 1906 offers a good starting point. “Way down at the foot of 1st Street Southwest, in that part of the city known as Buzzards Point, lies a hideous desert of ashes and tin cans—the dump.” With that vivid prose, an intrepid Star reporter began his description of one of the city’s largest and least known public facilities.
He assumed that his readers knew nothing about the Point, a large expanse bounded on the west by the broad Potomac River, on the east by the narrower Anacostia, and on the north by the area around P Street. A sluggish, marshy stream, James Creek, divided the terrain into a western side, dominated by the Arsenal, and an eastern side that was home to a scattered, racially mixed population.
Like an explorer, he detailed astonishing sights to his readers, who were perhaps a prosperous white couple perusing their Evening Star after a dinner prepared by their African American cook. “A fringe of ramshackle huts guards the northern approach,” he continues, “and at the foot of this barren, tomato-can cemetery the river ripples and smiles in the sunlight.”
The denizens of this burned over land were poor African Americans, who scratched livings from the bits of metal, leather, and fabrics they gleaned from the piles of municipal trash dumped each morning. “Hovering around each vehicle as it is unloaded — in all verity like winged scavengers for which the point is named—may be seen a score or more negroes, old and young, armed with hoes, rakes, sharp sticks, bags, boxes and push carts, ready to swoop down upon each load of debris.” Several hundred words later, the reporter closed his notebook and led his readers from this strange, outlandish place.
While readers may have found the Evening Star’s article enlightening, the city’s police knew Buzzard Point all too well as one of the most dangerous parts of town. “Bloodfield,” which stretched from Virginia Avenue to the river and Buzzard Point, was notorious during the 1870s and 80s as “the scene of the fiercest fights, the foulest murders and the darkest crimes in the city’s history,” according to a later newspaper account. By the mid-1890s it had become peaceable and law-abiding, but in the rest of Buzzard Point the officers of the Fourth Precinct who patrolled at night feared for their safety.