The majestically named Tiber Creek once ran through downtown Washington DC.  The name of the creek was a reference to the Tiber River that runs through Rome and naming the creek after the river was another effort to relate the new capital of the American “Empire” to the glory that was Rome.   The creek was long ago covered but it still exists underground.

Tiber Creek ran just north of  Union Station and the area around the creek at that point was named “Swampoodle” since the creek often left pools of standing water there after periodic floods and heavy rains, swamps and puddles that gave birth to the name.  It was a malaria infested, undesirable part of the city which became an Irish “Ghetto” with the massive infux of immigrants from the “Old Sod” caused by the “Great Potato Famine” of the mid-19th century.   It was also home to the tiny community of Italian builders and artisans who embellished the Capitol, the Library of Congress and other public buildings.  All the brilliant marble work, mosaics, paintings and other artistic finishes were the work of Italian artisans.

My grandfather for reasons not recorded made his way from Ellis Island in New York City to Washington DC.  There he took a job as a gandy dancer on the very rails that brought him to the town and first rented and later bought a house behind the train station in “Swampoodle.”   His children were all baptized in St Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street around the corner from his house at First and H Streets NE.  My father went to the well known Gonzaga High School located next to the church.

During Prohibition my grandfather made wine in the celler of his house and sold it from the back yard door in the alley behind the house. No one caused him trouble since “Swampoodle” was a well-known area for criminal activity and low lives.  I often joke that he had the closest alcohol producing operation to the Capitol during the “dry days.”   One of his competitors was my mother’s father who made bath tub gin in his house at 13th and East Capitol Streets which made him the closest real “bootlegger” to the Capitol for he had his sons deliver the goods to speakeasies.

In stark contrast to its reputation as being a “cesspool” of crime and low lives,  ”Swampoodle” was also somewhat bucolic.  Many homes kept live animals including pigs, goats, chickens and the occasional cow.  My grandfather raised goats which fed on the grassy slopes rising up to the Capitol.

Of course the majestic sweep of green parks rising from Union Station to the Capitol today makes it hard to believe that this once blighted neighborhood thrived at the foot of Capitol Hill.   My father remembered what it was like then but by the time I saw it, the neighborhood had changed to a modestly comfortable part of the town.   Since then it has become a forest of marble and limestone buildings.  The CNN building sits on top of my grandfather’s home.  Only  St Aloysius Church and Gonzaga High remain as remnants of the grimy community known as “Swampoodle.”