There was a time, 15 to 20 years ago, when the Shrimp Boat restaurant in far Northeast Washington -- famous for its fresh fish and hot steamed crabs -- was one of the most popular places in town.
"When you went to a dance some place or a movie, you always stopped at the Shrimp Boat," recalled Willie Hardy, former Ward 7 city councilwoman, who grew up in Washington. "It was so pretty. It looked like a ship. You just thought seafood when you saw it."
Now about the only time anyone pays attention to the old cinderblock carryout at the intersection of Benning Road and East Capitol Street is when strangers ask for directions.
"If anybody is coming to my house," said Hardy, who still lives in the Fort Chaplin neighborhood that cradles the old ship, "the first thing I say is 'Do you know where the Shrimp Boat is?"
Traffic, customers and progress flow right by the Shrimp Boat today, however. What was once an important gathering place in the Fort Chaplin-Benning Heights area has become an aging curiosity.
Increasing numbers of young troublemakers roam the area, contributing to a 6 percent rise in crime there since January. But even they ignore the place. Nobody has held up the Shrimp Boat in more than two years, its manager said.
Now, however, the future promises a commercial revitalization of most businesses in the area, due in part to the newly opened Benning Road Metro Station, just across the street from the Shrimp Boat. But it is uncertain whether the former hotspot, whose inside walls appear dusty and whose outside is rusty and chipped, will be a part of it.
"Rocky" Mohammed Khazali, the proprietor since 1977, looked down the long, empty counter where now only 25 to 30 customers are served each day. "I came at the end of the rainbow," he sighed.
The story of the Shrimp Boat, which sits at the edge of the intersection like a rusty tub moored to an old pier, is also the tale of a neighborhood that sprouted with great promise, stalled, and the decaved.
The Shrimp Boat was built in 1953 at a site that was little more than a ditch surrounded by acres of undeveloped, uncleared land, according to Ward 7 Council Member H. R. Crawford, who represents the area today. The nearby Marshall Heights neighborhood, according to Crawford, was "a shanty-town where people lived at the base of trees with mud streets and no sidewalks to speak of."
But as the carryout was being built, things started to change. Developers begin building affordable housing nearby. New public housing projects were erected. Families moved in. An up-and-coming, lower-middle-class neighborhood seemed to be in the making.
For the Shrimp Boat, that spelled success.
"My mother and my father always went there," said Renee Taylor, 24, of Southeast Washington. "The Shrimp Boat was the place everybody used to go to. Everybody wanted to be there."
Katie Whitehorn, who has worked at the carryout since 1960, recalled, "When I first started here you got a half-hour lunch and that's all. Business was just that great."
In those days, according to its longtime owner J. Fletcher Wilder, the Shrimp Boat was selling as many as 12,000 hot steamed crabs a week and 30 employes were on duty at a time. But on a recent summer day, Whitehorn was the only employe and spent time in between customers scrubbing cast-iron skillets and smoking cigarettes.
Wilder, who bought the carryout from a seafood broker for $200,000 in 1954, said that at its peak the Shrimp Boat grossed an average of $500,000 to $600,000 a year selling 35-cent fresh fish sandwiches and 15-cent milkshakes, not to mention chicken, ribs, potato salad and home-baked pie.
"I was offered any kind of money I wanted and wouldn't sell it," said Wilder, whose records, handwritten on yellowing lined paper, show that during the first 20 years of business he grossed more than $8 million. Wilder, 71, retired comfortably to his Arlington home in 1974.
From its start the Shrimp Boat catered to both black and white customers. That made it, in the 1950s, one of Washington's few integrated eating places.
"No preference -- we took 'em as they came," said Wilder, a white born in Clayton, N.C.
From the late 1960s until last year, however, Wilder's business and the neighborhood went into a steep decline as housing decayed and crime sprouted.
"People's way of thinking about the security of being out interfered with their coming out at night," said Wilder, who remembers doing the best business from midnight to 5 a.m. serving the party-going crowds.
But some area residents, former customers and passerby blame the Shrimp Boat for its own decline."They used to have good food, but I don't go in now because of the way it looks," said Felicia Simms, 21, of Southeast Washington.
"They need to upgrade the place," said Hardy, who said she remembers when the food was "ah, luscious." Hardy said the last time she stopped at the carryout was several years ago to get a cup of coffee.
Elsewhere, there are signs of a recovery. In addition to the subway that opened last November, three fast-food restaurants and two self-service gas stations have sprung up in front of and on either side of the Shrimp Boat and are doing a brisk business.
But for many longtime residents, the signs of regeneration are distrubing.
The subway and the new business come to a neighborhood that has prided itself on its residential quality, where hoems have been kept for a lifetime and passed on to the children who grew up in them.
"We don't want our area to become so blighted with fast-food outlets that it takes away from the neighborhood," said Crawford. "We don't want a Route 1 appearance." Crawford said he is working on legislation that would attempt to limit commercial growth. Crawford also said neighborhood parking permits soon will be available to help ease the traffic situation brought on by Metro.
Oldtime residents and businessmen also fear that the area's new popularity will push them out as real estate prices rise and subway-riding juveniles make life uncomfortable.
According to Dorothy Cherry of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, people fear that the area will become another Southeast or Capitol Hill, old residential areas that were transformed into expensive neighborhoods by remodeling and redevelopment.
"They want change, but the paradox is they don't want the changes of growth," Cherry said.
Meanwhile, Khazali struggles to keep the Shrimp Boat afloat.
Business runs about $8,000 to $10,000 a month, Khazali said. And his work force has been cut to six full-time employes who cook, clean and wait on customers.
Instead of selling "the freshest seafood in town," as the Shrimp Boat's motto boasted during its heyday, Khazali offers frozen, pre-breaded shrimp and scallops.
Wilder says the land on which the Shrimp Boat rests is alone worth half a million dollars. He said that he was offered that much just last month.
All the same, he said, he said, he has no plans to sell.
"It's an old love of mine," he explained. "You don't get rid of an old woman, do you?"