It’s a lazy, hazy Sunday afternoon on the Southwest waterfront, and only two sounds can be heard: Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and the splash of tiny waves against the houseboats at Gangplank Marina.
A beaming couple come around the bend. They speak in a near whisper. It just seems like what you should do here.
The waterfront is almost always quiet in part because it’s an isolated stretch, cut off to the north by Interstate 395, to the west by the Washington Channel, and to the south by Fort McNair and the ominous-sounding Buzzard Point.
Southwest has long tried to get the rest of Washington to notice it for the right reasons. In the 1950s, city planners evicted nearly all of the quadrant’s residents and leveled most buildings, hoping to stop the steady stream of photographs that showed Southwest’s shantytowns.
In the years that followed, there were ineffective attempts to revitalize the area. Now developers are trying again, and this time, they say, they can do it right.
But what that means for some of the residents and longtime businesses is unclear. With billions of dollars pouring in, some fear that the change could leave them behind.
Last year, a shiny new Safeway replaced a forlorn version on Fourth Street. It was part of an $800 million development that also included the arrival of a Starbucks. The first sit-down restaurant the neighborhood has seen in years has also been built. Nearby, a glittering new home for Arena Stage opened along Maine Avenue.
Next year, a massive redevelopment is scheduled to begin on the waterfront.
“Our plan is not at all like what happened 50 years ago,” said PN Hoffman head Monty Hoffman, who is careful with every word he chooses. “We want to add to the community, not take away.”
Anyone who has been in Washington long enough knows Southwest’s beloved institution by its smell and the shouts of leathery fish handlers taking orders and flinging crabs.
The Maine Avenue fish market, a group of family-owned barges, has long been selling fish around a parking lot at the end of the wharf. A stall named Jessie Taylor has been selling seafood since the 1930s, others since 1856.
Chelton Evans, the 67-year-old president of the fish market, said that in the 1960s, his father and uncle would pick up fish from Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, bring it back on a boat named Jessie Taylor and sell it. Now, most of it is trucked in.
Evans doesn’t own the pier attached to the fish market. He leases it, and it’s part of the redevelopment plans PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette have for Southwest. Hoffman said they will modernize the market but won’t alter it “too much.”
“Let’s put it this way: We won’t start selling T-shirts,” Hoffman said.
But the market Hoffman envisions sounds very different from what it is today, with a plan to sell local cheeses, clam chowder, honey and wine. Someday, the market may even include a beer garden and a sit-down cafe.
That image doesn’t quite fit with the needs of the residents of the Southwest waterfront’s public housing.
Just west of South Capitol Street, the western boundary of the neighborhood, several blocks of public housing still stand. Its residents are afraid of the impact the redevelopment will have on them.
“They’ve already started pushing black people out to Maryland and Southeast,” said Joe Brawner, 52, who plays basketball on Saturdays at a neighborhood recreation center. “Those people sure aren’t happy about it. But that’s the way it is. . . . Because there’s money here.”
But the D.C. Housing Authority, which owns the land, said it has no plans to sell, although developers have approached it.
“We tell residents what is on our plate, but some of them in the face of facts don’t want to believe it,” DCHA spokeswoman Dena Michaelson said.
“There’s a lot of fear in this community, in part because a number of people were relocated during the urban development” in the 1950s, she said.
The concerns of public housing residents seem a world away the closer you get to the waterfront.
Nationals Park, completed in 2008 in Southeast, is just a short walk away. The sidewalk along Maine Avenue, once deemed too “sketchy” for some, is being widened into a bike and running trail. And this hot summer has been perfect for splashing in the swimming pool at Hains Point, then riding a bike to the new Capital Bikeshare docks at Seventh and Water streets.
It’s a “combination of everything you would want in a special place,” said Mark Ein, an entrepreneur who recently moved the Washington Kastles tennis team from the District’s urban center to a temporary stadium in the old Hogate’s restaurant space.
Ein lists what he thinks makes the Southwest waterfront special: the water, the views of the city and monuments, the proximity to museums, the quiet and the greenery. “It is arguably the piece of real estate in Washington with the greatest potential that has been the most underutilized,” he said.
Ein brags about the Kastles’ undefeated season at the stadium this year and their 2011 World Team Tennis championship.
“The site was definitely good luck for us,” he said.
Monica Azimi also has bragging rights — she discovered Southwest in 2001, buying a condominium because it was cheap and close to a Metro station.
“Back then, there was really nothing here,” she said.
But a recent day found Azimi and her husband, Ibrahim, strolling along the waterfront with their 7 1/2-month-old daughter, Ella, examining the peaches at the new farmers market and lingering by the display of cookies from Buzz Bakery.
When Azimi first moved to Southwest, she worried about the struggling Cantina Marina bar. Now, the bar has few open seats on weekend nights as a boisterous crowd throws back tequila shots. On weekend afternoons, some Nationals fans watch the games at the bar as sailboats float by.
One mile east of Cantina Marina, other weekend drinkers come to Southwest to while away the time at the “Dubsplash” pool party at Capitol Skyline, a ’60s landmark hotel.
On a sweltering Sunday, the DJ pumps the music loud. Skimpily clad dancers in royal blue leotards and black headbands gyrate on tables as partyers dressed in bikinis, Speedos and even a few banana hammocks sip pricey drinks.
“American Pie” star Tara Reid is there, too, accompanied by a miniature dog and her entourage. She smiles as partyers in the pool sneak her picture.
Water is a recurring theme in Southwest. The pool parties. The marina bars. The Coast Guard, whose headquarters have long stood there. And the houseboats, almost a hundred of them, one of the biggest live-aboard communities in the country.
Some boats are owned by the powerful, for recreational use, including former senator Larry Craig and House members such as J. Randy Forbes (R.-Va.) and Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.). The presidential yacht Sequoia, where John F. Kennedy used to escape with his wife, Jackie, still floats at the wharf.
But there are also those who call their boats home, such as Dan Leonard, a 61-year-old government employee with a crew cut and a raspy voice.
Leonard said he moved from a house in Columbia to a 43-foot catamaran in the Washington Marina for only one reason: “I got divorced.”
He said that at the Capital Yacht Club he has found a community he never knew existed.
“Mostly, we spend time talking to one another about boats . . . or sometimes we make friendly gibes at the people who have sailboats,” Leonard said, laughing.
The Capital Yacht Club, which is the oldest Southwest tenant, has been in the neighborhood since 1892. On a Saturday morning, Leonard is sitting at the bar reading the morning paper. A family hangs out at a table as a child goes searching for a game.
The yacht club will move from its historic site soon as part of the Hoffman-Madison Marquette redevelopment.
Leonard says he’ll believe it when he sees it. “They keep showing us magical drawings of the new clubhouse. I don’t know when it will happen,” he said.
Less than a block from Leonard, in a small office smelling strongly of fish, Evans looks tired when asked about the redevelopment. Behind him, the numbers of suppliers are tacked to a map of the Chesapeake.
“The truth is, I don’t know much about it. That’s not my field. I’m a seafood person,” he said. “I think it will be nice. But it won’t be in my day.”
Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.