The next time I hear the words “world class” come out of the mouth of a politician or a developer about something in D.C., I’m going to scream. It’s a term that only highlights the phoniness of many of the projects popping up around town.
Last month, House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that she wants to turn East Potomac Park Golf Course into a “world-class, tournament-quality public course, with playing fees commensurate with such courses.” Last year, Donald Trump said the city lacks a “world class” luxury hotel as he explained why he wanted to build one at the Old Post Office Pavilion site. And in March, Norton said used the term about one place in particular that stands lose its identity entirely if held to such an absurd, artificial standard: the Southwest Waterfront.
Here’s the question: what does “world-class” even mean? These days, it feels more like a catch-phrase thrown in to a) draw investor dollars and b) inflate the egos of those involved in courting said money. But more insidiously, it implies that developing things for the folks already here isn’t enough of an impetus for change. “World class” should equally apply to the original and authentic, not just the new and glitzy.
Back in March, city officials and developers alike gathered to break ground on the newest gentrifying project in D.C., a development called The Wharf. I say that because the plans for this beast are so different, so far afield from what that area has represented for generations, that stealing the casual name of the Maine Avenue Fish Market as its moniker seems criminal.
On that day, it was raining, and there was a tent overhead to protect the powers that be from the elements. A group of elementary school kids from nearby sang a song with the lyrics “just imagine all the places we could go and see.” Everyone in that room knew full well that many of those children would never be able to imagine the profits that the developers clearly saw in their eyes, before them. A subsequent invocation bizarrely cited “attempted slave escapes,” referring to the site’s history. The entire event was pretty sickening.
I’ve said in this space before that some development in Southwest would be desirable, but it was hard to really remember what would be missing until the weather broke this year. The plan is to gut the quaint grittiness of the waterfront, and replace it with things that sound like they’ve been created in a college marketing class. In architectural renderings that line the fences along Maine Avenue, the images are ridiculous.
A silhouetted woman on a bike looks out over the water at the Monument. A dog plays in water. A water taxi. Capital Bikeshare. Kids learning to sail. More women on bikes. An Asian couple looking at housewares. White women buying apples. A black man in a suit looking at a new tie. A guy doing a fire-eating routine. A waiter dashing through in a blurred shot. An old white couple looking at furniture. A black man working in a hotel room. A white guy working out. The list goes on.
Places like “Market Pier,” “Draffiato” and “Wharf Hall” dot the skylines. And every few panels, a message informing you that what’s behind those fences is not fit to be looked at. “A New World-Class Waterfront,” “Welcome Home,” and “Splash and Play” the signs read in big block letters.
But not everybody hates it. John Wennersten, author of “The Historic Waterfront of Washington, D.C,” who’s written about local waterways for 3 decades, thinks there are definitely positives to the new development coming to Southwest.
“When you consider that planning authorities back in the 1950s nearly destroyed Southwest D.C. with their urban renewal projects, which at times called ‘negro removal’ forcing blacks into Anacostia, I think this is a very healthy initiative that is going to spur a lot of progress. It won’t be cheap to live there, though.” Wennersten said. “I’m enthusiastic about it. It may very well be the capstone development that unites the whole waterfront into a kind of singular amenity that is going to really be great for Washington, D.C.”
On Thursday afternoon, it was the usual scene at the market. Truckers and dock workers mingled and traded wares while blue-collar types and customers waited to pay up at Virgo Fish Cleaning House. A couple of Montgomery County Parks workers hauled off three huge bags of crabs, presumably that day’s lunch haul. Just like so many scenes I happen upon in D.C. these days, it felt like one I might never see again. The calm water air of the marina is now pocked with cranes, which will only increase in number with time.
Southwest resident Jeff Higgins, who’s lived in the area eight years with his partner, looks at it from a property values standpoint. “It’s bringing things up a lot, and it makes my building more attractive,” Higgins, 38, said. “We’re first time owners. I walk my dogs at 2 oclock in the morning, it’s not an issue. I got mugged once, that was actually in the middle of the day and it was just a bunch of kids. They didn’t try to take anything. It was simply them acting stupid.”
Down at Cantina Marina, the local turned seasonal spot that really gets going once summer hits, the restaurant is the perfect maritime relic. The middle pillar behind the bar is covered in badges from police and fire departments nationwide, and it’s one of the few places where you can light up a cigarette anywhere on the deck. Workers there are optimistic that years of construction and grand overhaul won’t kill the vibe.
“We have the Georgetown waterfront, but that kind of has the feeling of being [an] upper class, pricey area. If we brought new stuff down here, and made it look nicer with newer buildings, it’s not going to be just Georgetown people,” Beth Hanko, 25, who’s worked there for 7 seasons, said. “This will be where people from D.C. can come, normal people.”
But if city brass want to model themselves after something world class, they should take a look at the Fish Market. The familiar stench of the river is a constant, and you never wear anything there that you wouldn’t mind getting dirty. Yet everyday, people show up, ready to fork over their money for good food. It’s the oldest still-running fish market in the United States of America.
Meaning that by the definition of “world class,” it already is.