For my senior project in undergrad, I researched the role of my hometown (Alexandria, Virginia) had during the Revolutionary War. Through this research, I learned more about the rich history of Old Town (or downtown) Alexandria’s free black neighborhoods, which began to grow following the conclusion of the war and remained a large force in the community up until the late 20th century. However, these communities were largely displaced following the development of Alexandria’s waterfront as a tourist area in the 1970s. Since then, Alexandria’s population, especially in Old Town, has grown to become largely white and upper-class, gentrified to the point that small apartments will go for well over a million. For my digital project, I would like to create a website mapping these communities and the movement of people as the city shifted towards becoming a tourist destination.
Alexandria was founded as a port city, which during the late 17th century rivaled in prominence with Baltimore as the area’s main port. While Baltimore ultimately surpassed Alexandria as the preferred port as Alexandria’s location inside of the Potomac River made access more difficult, the city still remained a vital spot in the growing suburbs of the Nation’s Capital. During the 19th century, land closer to the waterfront attracted free blacks and poorer artisans for its proximity to business and cheaper price compared to more inland areas which were desired for their privacy. In the 20th century, as waterfronts began to become more attractive as public spaces, plans were made to develop Alexandria’s waterfront into a tourist area.
For my project, I plan to research more on the development of Old Town Alexandria as a tourist destination and the effect this had on the city’s black communities starting in the mid-20th century. This development included the restoration of historic houses, as well as the area becoming a hot spot for restaurants and other businesses like boutiques and hotels. The development of Old Town into a tourist destination also created a shift in the city being advertised as a historic place. After all, George Washington considered Alexandria his hometown. Only a 10-minute drive from the first president’s mansion, Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria has become known for its more tourist-based businesses and museums, such as being home to various historic ghost tour companies, a restored Gadsby’s Tavern, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. Due to Alexandria’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the area has been advertised as a more historical-minded, laid-back city compared to the hustle and bustle of the capital. I plan on looking at how Old Town Alexandria shifted from a largely black waterfront town into a historic destination.
I plan on using StoryMap to show the previous locations of these communities and indicate shifts in the area’s demographics. This will allow for Alexandria’s gentrification, and as a result the city’s black communities, to become fully visual to my website’s viewers. Through this, I hope to highlight and preserve the legacy of Alexandria’s black communities as vital to the city’s rich history.