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Waterfront Community – Washington DC


While it may be easy to forget, one of the underlying reasons the founding fathers chose Washington as the site of the new Federal city was due to its waterways accessibility.

Although it is not often thought of in these terms, Washington is a port city. And, every port city has a waterfront. Here, it is located in southwest Washington, in the shadows of the Capitol Dome.

When L’Enfant developed his plans for America’s new capital city, he envisioned the Waterfront as a fantastic entryway into the heart of the city. Here, visitors would be met by bustling commerce, a large military reservation and residents that exemplified the character of new American power. Those living in Washington at the time heeded this vision. Speculators and wealthy citizens bought large tracts of land in an effort to develop the waterfront.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Waterfront area of Washington was an important military and commercial center. The wharves that lined the Potomac welcomed freight ships, passenger boats and ferries. Fort McNair, constructed in 1791, housed new members of the American military. Goods arrived to the city through this gateway. The hustle and bustle of this neighborhood continued for the decades leading up to the Civil War.

However, after the war finished, a major shift occurred. Residents sought new neighborhoods in which to live. Immigrants arriving from Europe and freed slaves took up residence. From the mid-1800’s through the turn of the century, the Waterfront community offered work and shelter for these populations. Consequently, the neighborhood built a reputation as a community of the poorer classes. It became divided in half at 4th Street (then 4 1/2 Street.)

It can be said that the Waterfront provided Washington its own personification of Jeckyll and Hyde. It began to grow in a dichotomous fashion seemingly at odds with itself. The years 1895 through 1930 are known as the Waterfront’s “golden years.” During this time swimming, canoeing, aquaplanning, horseback riding and polo matches were common activities. Golf courses, vegetable gardens and tourist cabins dotted the landscape. A commercial district with grocery stores, shops, a movie theater and elaborate houses (owned by wealthy African Americans) thrived. But, co-existing within this enclave, and creating the vast majority of the neighborhood, were tenements, shacks and tents. Poor housing conditions. Back alley dwellings. A lack of plumbing. The two halves that were the predominant Waterfront neighborhood centered themselves around religious establishments. Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church, on the western side, was home to the newly arrived European immigrants. Friendship Baptist Church marked the eastern side and the home of the newly freed blacks. It is the eastern side that is the birthplace of Marvin Gaye (born in a tenement on First Street) and Al Jolson (who lived on 4 1/2 Street.) The conditions and this separation continued into the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1950’s, city planners working with the Congress came to the conclusion that the entire southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. needed to be scratched and rebuilt. The District of Columbia acquired nearly all of the land south of the Mall, with the exception of the Boiling Air Force Base and Fort McNair. The city did this through voluntary land purchases and, when that did not work, declaring eminent domain. Nearly all residents were evicted and businesses shuttered. The city destroyed streets and razed buildings. An outcry was heard from the Southwest Civic Association. They believed that the city’s plan on erecting luxury houses rather than supplying low and moderate income residences to replace those that were being demolished was a betrayal. However, the plans, which included modern buildings, open spaces and ample parking were met with great enthusiasm by city residents and officials. The District got to work and Southeast was, literally, torn down.

The Southeast/Southwest Freeway was constructed on what was F Street to separate business from residential areas. The renewal promoted Waterside Mall, a small shopping center and office complex. A Safeway grocery store anchored the property and it became home to satellite offices of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Arena Stage, restaurants and hotels were constructed. Southeastern University, a small college that was chartered in 1937 established itself there. Nearly all traces of the former Waterfront were removed. The only exceptions – the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the Wheat Row Townhouses, the Thomas Law house and the twin Saint Dominic’s Catholic and Friendship Baptist churches. They still stand to this day.

The Waterfront hummed along through the turn of the 21st century. Then, residential and commercial developers started to re-evaluate its potential. In, 2004, the District of Columbia announced that it would be building a stadium complex for the newly arrived Washington Nationals’ baseball team. The selected spot – across from South Capitol Street. This caused a new campaign in construction as condominium buildings were planned and built. The redevelopment and gentrification is still underway. However, the city envisions an area of fantastic growth upon completion. It will feature luxury residences, office spaces, hotels and tons of retail space.

One major draw of the area that has persisted and remained unchanged for over two centuries is the Maine Avenue Fish Market This market, also known as ‘The Wharf’ or ‘The Fish Wharf’ has been a vital part of the District’s character since it opened in 1805. It is one of the few surviving fish markets on the East Coast and the oldest in the country, surpassing Fulton Market in New York by seventeen years. Ten stores occupy the establishment, each offering a specialty, which are opened daily. Floating barges line the pier along Water Street as a tribute to the original pattern of yore, when the vessels journeyed the sixty miles to Colonial Beach, Virginia from where they harvested the bay.

The development of the Waterfront area has been essential in creating a new version of its old success. While most of the old neighborhood has been razed, cherished landmarks were kept. Added to these have been some of the most modern buildings of the city. As the Waterfront continues down its path, it is becoming a very exciting neighborhood in which to become a part, and, it is attracting folks from far and wide.

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