Martin Austermuhle made a whimsical point on Twitter about this picture, a 1992 historical photograph DCist featured to celebrate the convention center’s 10th birthday:

Martin wrote, “D.C., pre-war on cars. The place was motorist heaven.”

This makes a real point. We’ve been hearing a lot about the “war on cars” lately as AAA, the car lobby organization, has been really pushing the theme hard in the press and outlets eager for controversy lap up the destructive rhetoric.

But let’s not forget where we were. Not that long ago, much of DC had been shaped by a multi-decade “war on the city.” Well-meaning urban renewal efforts tore out large swaths of the urban fabric to build things like the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and big parking lots, like the ones in the picture.

Southeast Freeway construction. Image from DDOT.

The 1958 zoning code that DC is currently trying to replace was a weapon in that war. Its author, Harold Lewis, wrote that the city’s form was unable to adapt to a more car-oriented form and zoning must therefore compel it “for the salvation of the downtown area.”

In 1950, the federal government decreed that places like Shaw, Southwest DC, and more were “obsolete” and had to be replaced with more car-oriented development patterns. The “obsolete” zones include the area in this picture; this was the result.

It’s also worth remembering this era to understand the time when, as we discussed yesterday, very strong historic preservation protection was not only clearly necessary but absolutely urgent. The preservation plan quotes one resident saying “The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?” Commenter drumz pointed out that there isn’t really “an example in DC today of the same sort of large scale clearing that inspired the first preservation movement.”

Nobody is trying to wage a war on cars. AAA is just pushing the idea because after their long and successful war on urban places, the trend is moving in the other direction. And anyone who lives in the Mount Vernon Triangle today instead of that 1992 wasteland is pretty glad it is.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.