On a cool Saturday morning, Sunny White was where he has spent most of the past 45 years, at the fish market on Washington’s Southwest Waterfront, selling crabs to anyone he could persuade to buy.
“Hey, King! What you looking for?” White barked at a stranger in a Los Angeles Kings cap, pushing a crab at the man and his girlfriend before they could slip around the corner to check his competitor’s prices.
Anything was better than losing a customer to Jesse Taylor Seafood, owned by the Evans clan, otherwise known as White’s chief rival in the hurly-burly of peddling crabs.
“If you haven’t sold it in the first minute,” White said, reciting his own first law of fish market survival, “you’re not getting nothing.”
After four decades in the market’s trenches on Maine Avenue SW, White, 67, and his brother Billy, 60, owners of several business there, including Captain White Seafood City, are long accustomed to the open-air, over-the-counter hustle that has drawn customers since the early 1800s.
Slashing prices, shouting salesmen, loudspeakers and bullhorns — the Whites and Evanses have, over the years, tried whatever it takes to beat one another.
Yet their rivalry has grown more acrimonious as a developer seeking to transform the waterfront into another luxury Shangri-La has targeted two of the Whites’ businesses for eviction while forging an alliance with the Evanses.
“This is my world,” Sunny White said, “and they’re trying to take it.”
Yet what the Whites view as a hostile takeover, the Evanses see as an opportunity for a ramshackle market desperate for improvements. “They want things to stay the way they are,” said Steve Evans, the son of a Jesse Taylor Seafood owner. “It’s a power trip.”
A staple of any urban transformation is the inevitable clash of old vs. new, the indigenous and the encroacher, the longtime merchants accustomed to a certain culture and the developers driving the change.
Yet what distinguishes the battle on the Southwest Waterfront is not a Goliath-like developer clashing with a merchant. It’s that the developer is driving a deeper wedge between two longtime rivals, and that clash is overshadowing, at least for the moment, a showcase project to revive the Southwest Waterfront.
For years, the development team led by PN Hoffman has taken pains to express appreciation for the fish market’s history and to promise that its future is secure along a corridor that will be redefined by a $2 billion mix of condominiums, hotels, bars and shops.
At the same time, the developer, which took over the market’s management from the D.C. government, is seeking to evict Salt Water Seafood and the Wharf, two of the three businesses that belong to the Whites, the market’s dominant tenant. The Whites retaliated by filing a lawsuit, alleging that the builder is harassing them as part of a campaign to force them out. Their dispute is slated for mediation.
The developer, said Mark Dorigan, a PN Hoffman executive, is “the new sheriff” at a market that has long been a “Wild West” in which the Whites hold leases that may not be valid, owe rent and violate city codes.
“We just want everyone playing by the same rules,” Dorigan said. “All we are trying to do is have a safe and vibrant fish market.”
But the Whites say they have done nothing wrong, and that the developer wants to control the land that they occupy.
“We are fighting for our way of life,” said Penny White, an owner and the wife of Billy White.
Over the past two years, PN Hoffman has formed an alliance with the Evanses — and with the operator of the market’s fish-cleaning house, who has feuded with the Whites.
“I’m working with the group that wants to work with us,” Dorigan said.
In June, the developer’s attorney sent the eviction notice to the Whites, writing that they are maintaining a dining barge without a permit and that it “poses a significant safety risk to the public.”
The attorney also asserted that earlier this year “a young child had to be rescued from the water after falling off the Barge.”
Yet Dorigan, when asked, could provide no evidence that anyone fell off the Whites’ barge.
The Whites contend that the developer is seeking to damage their reputation.
“No child has ever fallen off the barge,” Penny White said. “How can they just say that? Is it about this child or evicting us?”
On a Wednesday morning, Shelton Evans, 71, was at his desk at Jesse Taylor Seafood, eying security monitors showing salesmen at the front counter selling such items as fresh salmon heads and jumbo stuffed crabs. Down the hall was the bed in which he sleeps when he is working a week-long shift.
His son, Steve, 51, was slumped in an overstuffed leather chair, and the two men were recalling the time, years ago, when the Whites started using a bullhorn to get shoppers’ attention.
“YOU AIN’T RIGHT,” Billy White shouted, “UNLESS YOU’RE EATING AT CAP’N WHITE!”
“I hated that damn bullhorn,” Shelton Evans said.
The Evanses retaliated by installing a sound system and blasting music.
“Whatever it took to drown them out,” Steve Evans recalled. “I’m not saying we’re the Hatfields and McCoys, but it’s always going to be someone trying to get the edge on someone else.”
A cluster of barges beneath the Interstate 395 overpass, the fish market is among the country’s oldest, and its colorful characters and funky aroma are reminders that Washington is not only about grand corridors and statues celebrating dead generals.
The Evans family has operated at the market for 80 years. Sunny and Billy White’s father, Bronzie “Pete” White, began selling crabs off a picnic table at the market during the late 1960s. In the early years, Sunny and Billy White and the other merchants sold their catch from their boats, on which they slept when they weren’t working. The boats later were replaced by barges (though, predictably, the Whites and Evanses don’t agree on who bought the first).
Over the years, the Whites expanded, opening a carryout, the Wharf, and taking over a third business, known as Salt Water Seafood.
They also found ways to rankle their neighbors.
At one point, the Whites sent salesmen onto the dock to lobby patrons to buy from them. The Evanses countered with their own salesmen until the families agreed to a detente, afraid that their hard sells would repel customers.
Yet, such moments of negotiation ended, Steve Evans said, because “we felt they wanted it all to go their way. Then there was no need to meet anymore.”
Referring to the Evanses, Billy White said, “They’d rather give crabs away for free than see the customers walk down to us.”
Darryl Jones, owner of Virgo Fish Cleaning House, had his own dispute with the Whites, whom he accused of violating an agreement that granted him the exclusive right to sell sodas at the market.
But then the Whites began offering free soda to patrons who bought their lunches.
“The Whites are just not nice people,” Jones said. “When you take food out of my mouth, don’t expect me to be your friend.”
Billy White dismissed Jones’s complaint as “lies.” Listening to her husband, Penny White smiled.
“It’s competition,” she said.
Just to the east of the fish market, the sky is a jumble of construction cranes looming over a seven-block-long crater. Every day, an army of workers descends into the pit to lay the foundation for the future.
“A New World Class Waterfront,” announces a billboard at the project’s edge.
The Evanses view the development as a way to modernize their pier and draw new clientele.
“Our new neighbors are going to have condos and hotels — they don’t want the smell, and I agree with that,” Steve Evans said. “I want this dock to be a place people want to come and say it’s great.”
The Whites agree that the market needs restoration and point out that the District never fulfilled a pledge to undertake $3 million in repairs. As for PN Hoffman’s project, the Whites say they were open-minded until the developer installed on the pier posts, known as bollards, that cut off vehicular access, then encouraged police officers to write parking tickets.
The Whites also say that the developer planned a new building for the market’s common area without seeking required consent from the market’s tenants committee, on which the Whites hold three of five seats.
Dorigan countered that the bollards were needed to protect, and that the Whites illegally use visitor parking spots for their trucks.
And although the Whites’ lease provides for a tenants committee, Dorigan denied that one exists, a contention that drew agreement from Evans and Jones.
“If we’ve got a tenants committee,” Shelton Evans said, “then I’ve got Alzheimer’s.”
In April, the developer’s attorney sent the Whites an eviction notice for Salt Water, alleging that the family had, without proper permits, performed construction work on a newly installed barge. Two months later, the developer sent a second eviction notice to the Wharf, alleging that the Whites were maintaining a dining barge without a proper permit.
Separately, the developer also has questioned the validity of the family’s leases for the two businesses.
The Whites have countered that the construction work at Salt Water was approved by the District. They denied running a dining barge for the Wharf, saying that their customers use the barge to eat but that there is no table service.
The Whites also say that the developers’ questions about their leases are further evidence of harassment. The family said it signed agreements for both businesses with the District — one around 2000 and the other in 2014.
When they received the eviction notice for the Wharf, the Whites were particularly angered by the developer’s reference to the child allegedly falling off their barge.
Dorigan referred questions about the incident to the Evanses and Darryl Jones. But Jones said it was his brother, Amos Jones, and a police officer who witnessed the fall.
In separate interviews, Amos Jones and the police officer said that although they saw the child after he was out of the water, dripping wet, they did not see him tumble off Whites’ barge.
“I don’t know where he fell from,” Amos Jones said.
Dorigan, in an e-mail, said that the child’s fall was “not the focal point” of the eviction notice. Instead, he said, “the focus should be on” whether the Whites are violating their “purported lease.”
Whatever the outcome of their dispute, the Whites’ best-known business, Captain White Seafood City, is drawing customers. But they said that the loss of their two other businesses would be devastating to their family.
“Nobody wants to lose two-thirds of your business,” Penny White said. “Nobody on Earth works their whole life to lose business. Nobody does.”