Washington is a city known for monumental green spaces like the National Mall, vast nature preserves like Rock Creek Park, and stately landscapes like Dupont Circle. Given this world-class competition, it’s easy to understand how one of the District’s most intimate and serene neighborhood parks could fly under the radar of the vast majority of city residents.
The present-day Southwest Duck Pond is located on a block that historically was known as the Cow Alley community, presumably for the bovine creatures that once wandered the packed-earth street. In the first decades of the 20th century, the rest of the District was experiencing an economic boom, but the minority majority southwest quadrant remained stuck in a cycle of poverty. The largest employer was an industrial rail yard, and much of the housing stock were so-called “alley dwellings.”
In the early 1950s, urban planners embarked on an effort to “fix” the area for residents. Dense, historic blocks of housing were classified as blight and bulldozed to make way for redevelopment. The bill for this architectural bloodletting included entire neighborhoods and dozens of historically black churches. Thankfully signs of life did eventually emerge from the rubble of the wrecking ball.
Rather than the bland public housing architecture that stands front of mind in cities across the country, Southwest D.C. got towers designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. The area also received a bounty of parkland. Most of it well-trafficked recreation areas: a soccer field, baseball field, public pool, playgrounds and numerous picnic areas. The most unique, however, is the leafy fountain at Eye Street and 6th Street SW. Originally known as a part of the “Town Center Parks,” at some point it acquired the unofficial moniker “Southwest Duck Pond” among locals, and the name has stuck.
The Duck Pond opened in 1972 and was designed by the landscape architecture firm Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd. The center point of the quiet park is a water feature that somewhat resembles the “command” button on a Mac keyboard from a bird’s eye view perspective. Three gazebo-seized peninsulas jut out into the water, each providing space for intimate clusters of two or three lounge chairs.
The park is essentially a dense collection of private bubbles, with a dozen or so seating clusters located far enough away from each other for privacy, but close enough for a pleasant people watching experience. The Duck Pond is a small square with just 480 feet to each side, but the canopy of shade trees make it feel like a vast green living room.
The Southwest Duck Pond is beloved by locals, many of whom have spent the last decade volunteering to repair the fountain plumbing and vegetation. If this is your first time visiting, it will likely feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a secret garden. Make sure to bring along a book to make the most of the experience.