Community in focus: Southeast DC

Note: This is the first article in a series on the neighborhoods of D.C. outside of Northwest. The series will explore the history, residents and businesses of each quadrant.

Grant LaGraff left his Southeast townhouse on Capitol Hill a few years ago to move downtown to Northwest D.C. But the atmosphere of the community that sits on the plateau behind the Capitol is far different from the part of the city with which most GW students identify.

“This area is a lot more family oriented. It’s much more of a neighborhood, and there’s much more of a community feel,” said LaGraff, who sat at the bar at the restaurant he manages. “Here it’s residential. Living downtown, there are hotels everywhere, 15-story buildings, traffic congestion. This is a neighborhood.”

Beginning on First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the dense clusters of tourists begin to dissolve and give way to rows of red brick and earth-tone townhouses, each with its own small front yard covered by gardens and contained within a wrought iron fence. One elderly, hunchbacked man slowly raked the leaves and brush off his walkway, while a young female professional hurried out of her house next door. They acknowledged each other as she rushed by him and let the gate slam shut behind her.

LaGraff said these are his restaurant’s clientele – the people who either live or work on the Hill. He is the manager of the only Cuban restaurant in the city, Banana Caf?, which doubles as a piano lounge in the evenings. The banana yellow building sits on the corner of Eighth and E streets S.E. and is part of the strip of Eighth Avenue known as Barrack’s Row, which stretches from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Navy Yard on the Anacostia River along M Street.

Barrack’s Row is Southeast’s version of a less commercial Georgetown. Its mix of restaurants and stores attract people from the area as well as others from the suburbs. However, it is more likely to see artsy, mom-and-pop shops, neighborhood pubs and fashionably unique boutiques than UNO’s Pizzeria or BCBG.

“There’s been a bit of an influx of stores on Eighth Street – a lot of little artsy places. It’s getting an old-town feel,” LaGraff said.

The 25,000 residents in the area, who include those in the Marine Barracks located on Eighth Street and thousands of employees from both the Navy Yard and the Capitol, come to the area to dine or shop. On weekends, tourists and city residents frequent Eastern Market – the open-air market on Seventh Street between North Carolina and Pennsylvania avenues – and the businesses of the row enjoy the runoff.

One community organization, Barrack’s Row Main Street, is working vigorously to revitalize the Row, bringing more business to the area while preserving its rich history. They also partner with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society to guard the character and history of the area.

“We have the same goals. We’re a historic district, which means we’re unique,” said Bill McLeod, executive director of Barrack’s Row Main Street. “Preservation can be a barrier to business, but people understand our commercial buildings are unique and special, so preservation drives better business.”

Since D.C. began developing rapidly during the 19th century, Northwest Washington has drawn much of the business development, leaving the rest of the city at a disadvantage. In Southeast, property was expensive due to the greed of some of the area’s wealthiest proprietors, and transportation between there and downtown was cumbersome. With the exception of clusters of development around the Capitol and Navy Yard, most of the area southeast of the Capitol was rural.

“In Northwest, the White House and Capitol Hill were like two magnets,” said Nancy Metzgar, chair of the Historic Preservation Committee. “It’s logical a lot of development would go there, and living near Congress also has a certain cach? to it. We didn’t have another magnet way to the east (of the Capitol).”

Large families began packing themselves into homes southeast of Capitol Hill during the early 1900s until the end of World War II, and the population exploded. But Metzgar said commercial development didn’t truly pick up until 1955 when people were leaving the city life behind for the suburbs.

“It started in 1955 under the Urban Renewal Project. Capitol Hill was slated to totally be wiped out,” Metzgar said. “We got started to prove to Congress that there was a viable community here.”

With new businesses beginning to thrive once again, McLeod and Barrack’s Row Main Street are working hard to bring new visitors to the area. Main Street formed a promotions committee for this specific task. McLeod said they have used the local papers to advertise special events including late-night shopping at the Eighth Street stores, pictures with Santa at the Eastern Market Metro Plaza, wine tastings and late-night acting classes through the Shakespeare Theatre.

“Maybe if we give them a taste of what’s here, then they’ll come back another day for shopping or to go to a restaurant,” McLeod said.

While city residents and visitors alike know the National Mall has a host of museums and cultural hotspots, so does Southeast Washington. The Folger Shakespeare Library on the Hill combines an extensive research library with a museum of William Shakespeare’s life and work. Performances and shows are held regularly, including poetry readings, classical music concerts and theatrical events. The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on Seventh and G streets also offers acting classes for adults and children.

Barrack’s Row nightlife also includes a small bar scene, which LaGraff said is slowly expanding. Banana Caf? opens the upstairs into a piano lounge with three regular pianists. LaGraff said the various artists cater to different age groups, but one pianist, Gordon Kent – a blind man who sings and plays trumpet and piano – draws a younger, “rowdier” crowd on the weekends. He said they are more likely to be the “interns” of the Hill rather than its employees.

Banana Caf? also hosts karaoke nights and tequila tasting on Wednesdays sponsored by Jose Cuervo.

As the Southeast Capitol neighborhood continues to draw new visitors and businesses, Metzgar said the area will always have a unique quality.

“In one sense, it’s geography. It’s up on a plateau,” she said. “The Capitol itself forms that very striking visual, and at the same time it is that sense of identification. No one else carries that around as the visual image of their neighborhood.”

Sidebar:

Southeast Washington has a growing business district on 8th Street. Here’s a sampling of local retailers and restaurants.

Banana Caf? and Piano Bar
500 8th St. S.E. * 202.543.5906

Foot Locker
801 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. * 202.547.2551

Mickey’s Patio
406 8th St. S.E. * 202.547.9640

Las Placitas
517 8th St. S.E. * 202.543.3700

Plaid Boutique
715 8th St. S.E. * 202.675.6900

Starfish Caf?
539 8th St. S.E. * 202.546.5006

Shakespeare Theater
516 8th St. S.E. * 202.547.3230

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