Until very recently, the main reasons to visit the Southwest Waterfront/Navy Yard area were to report to work at some federal agency, have a car inspected, or visit a strip club. That, however, was before the $611-million-plus Nationals Park touched down right at South Capitol and N Streets SE.
Now Southwest is getting more visitors than it can handle, and they come bearing credit cards and $20 bills instead of vehicle papers and singles.
The new ballpark’s neighbors, however, aren’t doing much to help separate subway tourists from their disposable income. Though much has been said about how the venue has prompted an overhaul of its environs, there isn’t a hell of a lot completed just yet—especially on the Southwest side. Right now, the neighborhood is a mix of construction/demolition sites and unrecognizable new structures not yet occupied by businesses eager to gobble up the change leftover from purchases of Nats caps and beer.
City planners are hoping that Southwest’s latest overhaul will go over better than the last one. From the late 1700s through the 1950s, the area was a working-class neighborhood populated by folks who slogged away at the docks, back when the demand for fresh-caught fish from the Potomac was such that whole crews of workers were required to satisfy it.
In the late ’50s, thanks to one of the first large-scale urban renewal projects in the country, wharf workers in alley row houses gave way to federal workers, gray midcentury design, and wide suburban-esque streets. The quadrant became a residential no-man’s-land—beloved by a select few happy to be a part of D.C.’s most architecturally anomalous hood but ignored and dismissed by most.
Now, just as hipsters have started to discover that the dwellings of the long-unfashionable Waterfront area are a perfect fit for their Design Within Reach furnishings, the neighborhood decides to change again. Although the aluminum-roofed rowhouses of River Park appear safe from rehab, the Marina View apartments are getting a facelift and the mod, boxy Waterside Mall has already undergone demolition.
Like the ’50s revitalization, the changes could eventually force out the working poor and middle-class folks who live in the neighborhood. The Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Dwellings, or “the Capers,” as locals once called the development between 2nd and 7th Streets SE, was the first public housing casualty. The razed acreage is the future site of some fancy mixed-use development. Residents of the James Creek and Greenleaf housing developments, which sit behind M Street SW, have taken to wondering if their homes will be the next to go.
The stadium, despite bringing family fun and financial opportunity to the Navy Yard, also killed the city’s last true “red-light” district, which is either a great accomplishment or a damn shame, depending on who you talk to.
Long after 14th Street NW transitioned from an infamous ho stroll to a playground of the stroller-pushing elite, the Navy Yard area continued to welcome enlisted men and D.C. natives alike with its clubs and strip joints.
Although it’s a safe bet that countless eateries and bars will pop up in the area surrounding the ballpark in the coming years, those new businesses will have a tough time living up to the legendary night spots that came before them—all of which either shut down or relocated before opening day at Nationals Park.
The pocket of underdeveloped land directly across the street from the ballpark housed many generations of famed night spots—Tracks, the Mirage, the Chapter III—as well as all manner of kink clubs, such as Wet and the Edge.
Right next to Half Street concert venue Capitol Ballroom (later known as Nation), was Club 55. The strip joint was featured on HBO’s “Real Sex” more than a couple of times and was the dance home of several Miss Black Nude World winners. When Jenny’s Restaurant, which has since moved to a spot on Water Street, was housed in Waterside Mall, it was a Chinese eatery by day, dance club for young, gay black men at night. The meeting spot called “Miss Jenny’s” by regulars had the distinction of inspiring the Washington Post’s first major foray into the so-called “down low” lifestyle.
But yeah, baseball is fun, too.
• Aside from Water Street’s large Gangplank Marina (home to the quadrant’s many houseboats), Nats Flats houses some smaller, tucked-away private marinas, too. The most notable is Buzzard Point, site of Marion Barry’s second-most-infamous drug bust. In 2002, park police found the Mayor-for-Life in his Jag, along with some weed, a woman, and a rock.
• Arena Stage, inarguably the busiest cultural attraction of Southwest Waterfront proper, is undergoing a massive renovation and is currently splitting its shows between the Lincoln Theatre and a temporary space in Crystal City. Shows will return to Southwest in 2010, when construction is completed.
• Fort Lesley J. McNair is the city’s first military installation, according to Cultural Tourism DC, and it also boasts the finest homes and best river views in the neighborhood. Ever been at Hains Point, looked across the river, and wondered: Who lives in those stunning manses right on the water? What part of D.C. is that? That would be Fort McNair. Cozy up to your McNair neighbors and try to snag an invite to some event at the officers’ club, the most swank hangout spot in Southwest.
• The Maine Avenue Fish Market stinks, lacks the high drama of Pike Place-style fish-throwing and, despite the waterside location, much of the seafood here comes from the same location as the seafood at your local Giant. But it’s still nice to pick up a jillion-dollar bushel of crabs and pretend they’re freshly hoisted from the water in front of you.