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Eastern Market:
Life Revolves Around It

By Joel Glenn Brenner
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 27, 1993

It is a crisp Sunday morning, the sun is still hidden from the Capitol dome and already the stalls surrounding historic Eastern Market are cluttered with activity.

The flea market regulars know the best catch of the day comes early, so before most Washingtonians have had their morning coffee, these do-or-die shoppers are bustling through the wares of the more than 100 vendors who call Eastern Market home every weekend. To these patrons of junk and crafts, the eclectic mix of antique furniture, handmade clothing, jewelry, paintings, books, appliances and attic oddities are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered, then bartered at the right price.

But to those who live in the neighborhood surrounding the century-old market on Capitol Hill, the throng of shoppers that visits each weekend is superfluous to the real business that takes place at the bazaar every Saturday and Sunday—the business of connecting with the community.

Through the din of haggling, another line of conversation can be heard: There's the rehash of last week's Redskins game and a heated discussion of President Clinton's lobbying for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Over in the corner, a group of women swap Thanksgiving recipes and debate the tradition of sweet potato or pumpkin pie. Inside the market, neighbors shout hellos and gossip as they stock up on produce and freshly butchered meat.

"The market is our gathering place," said Roberta Weiner, who lives a block away and can be found sorting through the vegetables each week. "It's where we chat and catch up with one another and swap stories and talk politics. It's just part of life here."

Mark Ingram, who lives at the corner of Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, said, "If I miss a Sunday at the market, I feel out of touch with the world. It's a ritual to go up there and chat with neighbors. If you miss a weekend, people will even worry about you and call to find out where you are."

Such small-town friendliness, in a neighborhood with about 5,000 people, might seem out of place in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers rule with biting tongues and power and influence are the order of the day. But to those who live around Eastern Market, Capitol Hill connotes nothing more than shady streets, Victorian row houses, elegant boutiques, funky antique shops and homey taverns.

Their community is a place where neighbors know one another, where people pitch in to keep the streets and sidewalks clean, where the lawns are neatly manicured and the parks are crowded with an equal mix of babies and dogs.

Bounded by Fourth Street on the west, 12th Street on the east, Independence Avenue on the north and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway on the south, the neighborhood is home to whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians alike. There are people like Flossie Lee of Ninth Street SE, a retired teacher who has lived on the Hill for as long as anyone can remember, and people like Michael Erlandson, who moved to the neighborhood seven years ago but cannot imagine living anywhere else.

"When you pass someone on the street in this neighborhood, you say hello," said Erlandson, who represents the Eastern Market community on the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC). "I don't know of any other part of the city that's like that."

Because of its proximity to shops, several Metro stops and the market, local real estate agent Don Denton said homes in the neighborhood sell for $250,000 to $300,000—on the high end of what Capitol Hill has to offer. But he said that's still a bargain compared with home prices in other parts of the city.

"Many of the houses here are quite spacious," he said. "You can get a lot more than you would in Dupont Circle or Cleveland Park for the same amount of money."

Denton said that while there is an abundance of homes for sale, he has seen prices stabilize in recent months and "homes are definitely moving off the market."

However, most of the residents moving in are coming from other areas of Capitol Hill, Denton said. Most are working couples or singles, although there are a fair number of families in the area, as well.

"You just don't find many people moving onto the Hill from other parts of town," Denton said. "Those who live up here have just fallen in love with the community and they don't leave, they just move from one Hill neighborhood to another."

That sense of community is perhaps most evident inside Tunnicliff's Tavern at 222 Seventh St. SE, just across the street from the market. Here, neighbors routinely gather after work for a beer or a quick bite to eat. Like the mythical bar Cheers, Tunnicliff's attracts patrons as much for its friendly, homestyle atmosphere as for its food and drink. Newcomers are welcomed to join in the banter, but clearly stand out from the regulars.

Ironically, when Tunnicliff's first opened in the early 1980s, many residents questioned if it could survive. But those were different days, before the rebirth of Seventh Street and the creation of the Saturday crafts fair and Sunday flea market.

"It used to be on a Sunday on this block you could shoot a shotgun down the street and you wouldn't hit anybody," said John Harrod, executive director of Market Five Gallery, which is located on the north end of the market. In 1984, Harrod came up with the plan for the crafts fair and flea market in an attempt to bring life back to the market on weekends.

Tom Rall, who has run the flea market from the beginning, remembers the very first bazaar on a Sunday in late March 1984.

"We had only one dealer that day and we literally had alcoholics sleeping in the doorways of the market itself," Rall recalled. "For a while there, the drunks outnumbered the vendors two to one."

These days, however, vendors fight for a good spot along Market Row, which runs the length of Seventh Street each weekend. Earlier this month, Rall said he signed up a record 120 vendors for the Sunday gathering. He hopes to exceed 150 next year.

Money raised from the weekend activities is split between the nonprofit art gallery and Hine Junior High School, another community landmark.

Principal Princess Whitfield, who has run Hine for the past 11 years, said that kind of support is unique in the city.

"We have a true partnership between the school and the neighborhood," Whitfield said. "There isn't a business or a resident in the surrounding blocks that I couldn't call on for help."

When the school needed to raise money, the owners of Bread & Chocolate on Pennsylvania Avenue donated cheesecakes for a bake sale, Whitfield said. When the children needed summer jobs, the gallery offered employment. This kind of cooperation has helped Hine win numerous educational awards in recent years, including the Department of Education's Blue-Ribbon Award for Excellence.

When Whitfield first came to the school in 1982, she said it was known as "Horrible Hine" and neighbors wanted the school shut down.

"All that's changed since we started a dialogue with the community and now, everyone loves us. It shows the true spirit of this community and what people can do when they really try."

The only issue that has divided the community is the future of the market itself. For more than 20 years, residents have debated whether to renovate the market, which was built in 1873 and then added onto in 1908. The market is the last remaining market of the city's original market system, which was put in place by President Thomas Jefferson.

Several years ago, the battle over the market heated up when a proposal was made to add a second-floor gallery, a grocery store, elevators, wider aisles and new management. But the debate soon ground to a halt after neighbors, preservationists and market vendors failed to agree on a proposal to overhaul the structure.

Sadly, the market has continued to deteriorate over the years, and many residents said they are fearful that if something isn't done soon, the heart of their community will have to be closed.

"Everyone wants what's best for the market, we just can't agree on what that is," said real estate agent Denton.

Erlandson said that the local ANC plans to hold a hearing next year on the market renovation in an effort to rekindle interest in the issue and ensure that, at the very least, some preventative maintenance takes place.

"We all recognize that if we do nothing, we'll lose the focal point of this community," he said. "And I don't think anybody really wants that to happen."

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