Gentrification spelled out: Fish in the ’Hood renamed Fish in the Neighborhood
By Emily Wax,
Even as upscale, high-rise condos went up around it and a string of hipster bars opened nearby, the beloved storefront restaurant Fish in the ’Hood remained an iconic institution on its gritty but evolving stretch of Georgia Avenue. Such was the pace of change that longtime customers often found themselves joking: Is this really still “the ’hood?”
Last week, Bill White, the restaurant’s owner, answered that question. He climbed a ladder and hung a new boardwalk-style neon sign that reads: Fish in the Neighborhood, with “neighbor” in a contrasting color. The sign puts a spotlight on what remains and what has changed in this Georgia Avenue neighborhood known as Park View, an area sandwiched between Petworth to the north and Howard University to the south. It seemingly captures a moment of transition in this city, where African Americans may be losing their majority status in the District for the first time in 50 years, according to 2010 Census data released last year.
“Wait, where am I?” joked Tameka Whipple, 35, an African American nurse and longtime customer who came in to order butterfly shrimp and her favorite slaw. She had been standing on the corner, perplexed by the sign. “But, I guess, I do get it. It’s kinda thugged-out to be like, ‘Fish in the ’Hood!’ Maybe it makes the area sound ghetto, or less safe, than it is. People aren’t as scared to walk here anymore, I noticed that.”
It’s like the ’70s sitcom “The Jeffersons,” she said, laughing. “But it’s the neighborhood that’s ‘movin’ on up.’ ”
White, who is African American and married to a Salvadoran woman, tossed a fleshy piece of tilapia into a pan, cooking it in olive oil, seasoning it with Old Bay and offering to squeeze a freshly cut lemon over its crunchy skin. (The menu offers three options: crispy, extra crispy or extra, extra crispy.) Amid the crackling sounds and pungent aromas of salmon, snapper and shrimp, catfish, crab cakes and clams flash-frying in vats of hot oil, White talked about the change.
“Maybe some people — older black residents and some white newcomers — would see the term ‘ ’hood’ and think it’s negative. I also wanted to emphasize the word ‘neighbor,’ ” said White, as he looked out onto Georgia Avenue.
Heading outside to talk, White sat under one of the store’s outdoor tables, shaded by shaggy tiki umbrellas, and pointed out the diversity on the street: a pretty African American police officer on a bike, her hair tightly braided; a buff white woman with yoga mat bobbing off her shoulder; and a West Indian couple in business attire, who entered the shop and chose their fish from the display case and had it made to order, “just like we would back home.”
“The avenue is changing, and I’m like the last of the Mohicans around here. There are so many black businesses that are dying off,” White said, delivering plates of cornmeal-crusted bass and scallops, along with collard greens and candied yams dusted with cinnamon, to the lunch crowd outside. “We’re adjusting, because it’s the only way to survive. I try to look and see what’s around me.”
White says he hasn’t formally changed the name because — in his head, anyway — it was known as Bill’s Seafood Kitchen: Fish in the ’Hood. Students from Howard University, whose campus is just down Georgia Avenue, coined the nickname Fish in the ’Hood a few years after the landmark storefront was opened nearly 15 years ago.
He would hear students on the phone saying, “ ‘Yeah, I’m at this place and it’s like Fish in the ’Hood,’ ” said White, 51, as he handed out lemonades. “It got to the point where I would answer the phone ‘Bill’s Seafood Kitchen,’ ” and they would say, ‘Do I have the wrong number? I’m calling for Fish in the ’Hood.’ After about five calls like that, I thought: ‘Why not just change the name?’ ”
The City Paper once termed this general area “Not-yet-worth,” a play on Petworth, a sprawling neighborhood that sits a few blocks north, because it was slower to gentrify than others in adjacent Columbia Heights or Mount Pleasant. Just one block up and across the street from Fish in the Neighborhood, the new E.L. Haynes Public Charter School is bathed in the flickering lights of a windowless strip club, the House, with its “Girls, Girls” sign. Although crime has been down in the area, there was a 3:30 a.m. nonfatal shooting outside the store on New Year’s Eve, which cracked White’s front window, which had a rendering of two giant fish facing each other. (Along with the new sign, White plans to put in a new window and redo the fish.)
But the property values speak for themselves. White’s rent recently shot up from $1,000 a month to $4,000, and he’s worried he will eventually be bought out by Starbucks or another luxury condo complex. It’s not just paranoia: His landlord recently sold a building down the street to a new condo project, the Avenue. It’s marketed on posters to well-dressed black and white professionals with the slogan “Georgia Avenue, the pulsating lifeblood of DC.”
White’s wife still answers the phone with, “Fish in the ’Hood.” But, to some, the new sign seems like a hip-hop star who’s correcting his grammar to widen his appeal. “This means their salmon is swimming upstream!” chuckled poet E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University’s African American Studies Resource Center. “Maybe one day, a new sign can call it ‘Fish in the Heights.’ But this is the reality — the city is always changing. ”
Still, the irony of the new sign is that the word “neighborhood” suggests the business is “reaching out to white residents who have tin ears. But the fact is that they live and eat there because they like the idea of being ‘in the ’hood,’ ” said Jane Freundel Levey, chief historian at Cultural Tourism D.C., a nonprofit group that promotes neighborhood history.
“I love the name Fish in the ’Hood. It’s funny,” said Alex Leininger, 30, who is white and brought his parents, who were visiting from Seattle, to the restaurant.
Eating lunch at an outside table, BJ Lockhart and his wife, Annabelle, debated the new sign. “He needs to use Fish in the ’Hood as the official name,” said Annabelle Lockhart, who has lived in the District for 40 years but is from the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We don’t want to lose the identity of the neighborhood.”
“But it’s not the name that matters. We fell in love with this place because of how we are treated, with dignity and fresh fish,” said BJ Lockhart, who is originally from the island of Antigua and owns an insurance business on Georgia Avenue. “Because the pace of gentrification has been so slow on the avenue, I hope that we can keep what is good and lose what is bad.”
His wife thought about it, smiling as she made sure he was too busy talking to notice she was going to steal his last oyster.
“And this place, whatever the name, well, it’s really, really good,” he said. Then he swatted her hand away from his plate.