21. Grace St./Cherry Hill/Cissel (Cecil) Alley

Photo by Andrena Crockett

Cissel Place, once Cissel Alley and now named Cecil Place, took its name from the Cissel family that owned the flour mill at Potomac and Grace at the end of the 19th century. This is how the area described the inhabitants of Georgetown from Cissel Alley over to 31st Street in 1909 as a part reporting on Georgetown’s alley dwellings. “Cecil Alley” or “Cissell Alley” whose ancient cobblestone pavement leads down a steep hill past a row of two-story-and-basement brick rowhouses inhabited by rather needy white families. Back of this row is “Cherry Hill” with its cluster of brick and wooden dwellings occupied by colored people. Further east, on Thirty-second street, Grace Church stands near the end of the uncouth little street which bears its name. Behind the church is “Brickyard Hill” where both white and colored people have lived for many years in a remarkable collection of unsanitary houses.

In this documentation of the meager living conditions of DC’s poorest residents just after the turn of the 20th century, the focus was primarily on the unsanitary conditions of these living quarters, but it captured the general squalor as well. Nearby there were, and are, some rough two-story, wooden dwellings of which one chiefly remembered the overflowing box toilets with extra pails of open, repulsive filth beside them.  This old tenement seemed to be somewhat more dilapidated than the other houses and its conditions were so bad that it was finally demolished in November 1907. Within ten feet of these old building stood some of the wooden box toilets which served the outside houses fronting upon Thirty-first street. The brick houses, standing seven or eight feet below Brickyard Hill, must receive into their diminutive back yards a good deal of its unwholesome drainage. It was not until July 1908 that the owners were forced to install water closets in Thirty-first street row, whose white tenants had long complained of their lack of water. Today besides the paved road and the new buildings to the left, the most striking change in the picture is how the homes used to have second floor entrances. The photos are unclear whether the old entrances are the existing second floor windows, or if entrances have remained the same explaining the fact that they’re now at ground level. Black Georgetown Remembered reported that by 1910, most of the neighborhood had become predominantly African American, as whites abandoned Georgetown’s narrow, crowded streets for better housing and employment elsewhere in the city.