It’s a Tuesday evening at Justin’s Cafe, just a short walk from Nationals Park, and the bar is packed. Young couples scarf down pizza and beer as the happy-hour work crew settles in for the evening.
But it isn’t game night at the park. It’s Trivia Night, and the dozens of people who pile into the neighborhood restaurant greet each with warm familiarity.
“You can follow soccer, but you can’t follow hockey? It’s the same thing!” one guy says to his date at a table near the door.
Nationals Park opened in 2008. In the immediate years afterward, when the area was still gritty, the community surrounding the new, gleaming stadium had two personalities: one with ample foot traffic during the days and nights when the team suited up, and one that was far more barren when the home team was away. Back in those days, the makeshift fairgrounds on Half Street just outside the park’s center-field gate was the only place to go before and after games. There were only a few places to grab a bite to eat or shop for groceries if you lived in one of the new high-rises.
But now in the Navy Yard neighborhood, while the stadium is a part of life, life no longer revolves around the stadium. Families looking for affordability and a nice place have moved in. Restaurants with names such as Osteria Morini, Agua 301 and Kruba Thai have opened there. Creatively landscaped Yards Park allows for scenic views of the Anacostia River.
Yes, there are still large holes in the ground and cranes that foreshadow future development. Scaffolding overhangs the Metro station at the New Jersey Avenue exit. But amid the construction is an actual community. And it’s a likable one.
In some cases, residents said they like the neighborhood better in the offseason or when the Nationals are away.
“As a Nats fan, if [the season] ended [soon], you’d be upset,” said Jason Smith, 26, who lives with his wife at 70 Capitol Yards on I Street SE. “But as a resident, I’d actually be okay with it because you would have more access to everything. I don’t like the crowds as much, so I would like to be able to take Metro home and not worry about crowding in at L’Enfant Plaza with 1,000 other Nats fans.”
On a recent Saturday morning, early risers exercise in Canal Park across from Lot 38, a community coffee shop, where two friends talk about work life on Capitol Hill. At Yards Park just east of the stadium, children are playing in their bathing suits as a mother snaps pictures.
Shannon Ternes was there that morning. She’s lived in the District for nine years but never expected to stay that long. She just had a baby, and her husband’s a huge baseball fan. For them, moving from Van Ness to Navy Yard has improved their quality of life.
“We were on the complete other side, off the Red Line, which I hated,” Ternes, 33, said. “I feel like I’ve really seen this neighborhood go through that transition. Sometimes I feel like when we first moved here that we only had Starbucks, Five Guys and Subway, that like, I’ve paid my dues, and so I love our neighborhood now. It’s very exciting to see all the restaurants and the family activities. It’s a super family-friendly neighborhood.”
Several residents said that while the evolution in the neighborhood has been gradual over six years, the change has been particularly steady since 2012.
“Comparing Navy Yard of today to Navy Yard of two years ago — today’s neighborhood is much more livable,” said David Garber, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for a portion of Navy Yard. He pointed to the new Canal Park that stitches together the east and west sides of the neighborhood and the kayak rental place on Potomac Ave and 1st.
“One big success over the past two years has been the growth of local businesses in the neighborhood,” he said. “Although we’re mostly new construction, it isn’t just national chains going in.”
Jair Lynch, 42, is a D.C. native and a developer in the District. He sees the area, officially known as the Capitol Riverfront, as a place that has all the ingredients to be a destination of its own.
“I think the momentum around the demographics [has] helped developers to be more thoughtful about creating longevity,” he said of the thousands of people arriving in Washington every year.
“Because I think when there was nothing there and it was all used car lots 10 years ago, it was about, ‘Let’s just create a festival,’ because that’s the only way we’ll attract,” Lynch added.
His company just bought a parcel of land adjacent to the Half Street SE Metro exit.
“I think now, you don’t have to think that way,” he said. “It’s matured enough to where you can say, ‘Let’s just create authenticity. Let’s create a place that’s neighborhood-based first but expandable for large events.’ ”
But behind the shiny high-
rises and manicured parks, there are older businesses that hope to remain and capitalize on the evolving neighborhood. On L Street SE, tucked between two apartment buildings and across the street from a taxi depot is a little two-story walk-up. That’s where Ann’s Beauty Supply and Wigs Co. sits in the shadows of the fast-driving development.
Inside, owner Sok “Ann” Reed sits on a stepstool, waiting to buzz people in. Reed is from a generation of the District gone by. Her old shop used to be at the old Waterside Mall across South Capitol Street in Southwest. That gave way to development and she was forced to move. As a renter there, she made a decision.
“I was there 25 years. They renovated; I lost my spot,” Reed, 65, said matter-of-factly. “Only reason I bought this is because I didn’t want them to kick me out again. I’m having a little hard time, but I’m hanging in there.”
She says she’s been approached by developers inquiring about buying her place. But she sees no reason to sell. Her business put her three daughters through college, and even though it’s not great, there’s no reason to leave. After moving here decades ago, this is home.
“I’m not doing that great, but not that bad. But I’m here,” Reed says while a girl asks her mother for candy after school in the doorway. “I’ve worked for 40 years, six days a week. Even my children say, ‘Mom, you talk like a D.C. lady.’ Well, that’s all that I’ve learned, so it’s okay.”
But even for area natives who moved to Navy Yard, the feeling that it’s a transformed neighborhood is still taking some getting used to. Hilary Weckstein works in Bowie and bought a condominium at the Capitol Hill Tower before the ballpark was completed. A graduate of Langley High in Fairfax, she remembers the old days of her neighborhood.
“When I first moved there, I was thinking, oh, Delaware and K was where we went to buy pot in high school,” she said. “I don’t think that most people even remember that. But I don’t think about that anymore.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misidentified where Yards Park is in relation to Nationals Park. It is east of the stadium, not west.