Living in a neighborhood down by the river

This is the final 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.

Southwest D.C., the city’s smallest quadrant, lies tucked away from the rest of the city between I-395, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and South Capitol Street – nestled so snuggly that it’s easy to forget these quiet, close-knit neighborhoods are there at all.

Yet as the area becomes one of the city’s hottest locales, prized for its close proximity to major landmarks and relatively low real estate, the neighborhoods once built from scratch in an urban face now stand at a crossroads that could determine the character of their locale for years to come.

Just blocks from the Capitol, the bustling streets surrounding federal office buildings fade into the Southwest that was the site of one of America’s first urban renewal projects, said Brian Hamilton, a minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church and an eight-year resident of Southwest.

“When the land buyers came to the city, they started buying up Southwest first, figuring that would be the hot spot of the city,” Hamilton said. “They didn’t realize that the Potomac was still navigable up as far as Georgetown and so that would really become the heart of the city.”

“This area, back then, became known for its diversity, populated by a mix – lots of Irish, Jews, Italians, African Americans, mostly poor but culturally rich … cut off from the city by the Washington Canal and then much later by the highway,” he continued.

Hamilton said the area was targeted for redevelopment in the 1950s and ’60s because many of the residents in that part of the town lived in unsanitary homes that often lacked indoor plumbing.

“(The project) dislocated thousands of residents, who were told they could return when the work was done. But the new buildings – they couldn’t afford them, and many stayed dislocated,” he said.

The result was a new, somewhat more affluent Southwest, but one that was still hidden away from the rest of the city. The area remains almost entirely residential. There are, however, a few notable exceptions, such as the Arena Stage and the waterfront area, which houses a boat marina, a few upscale restaurants and Washington’s fish market, as well as the city’s monument to those who died in the sinking of the Titanic.

On Saturday mornings, residents from all over the city, as well as seafood-loving tourists, head down to the fish market to purchase fresh fish, oysters, crabs and even octopus, all brought to the Potomac by boat from the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’m a fisherman, out there on the weekends when I get a chance,” said Charlie Dale, a northeast D.C. resident who often comes down to the river to buy fish. “Now, you don’t get fresher than that. But if I can’t go get them myself, this,” he said, pointing to a sack containing his day’s selections, Rock Fish stuffed with shrimp, “is as close as you get.”

Yet it’s the area’s seclusion, relative quiet and close-community feel, more than any of those attractions, that draws many of its residents.

“People here will really talk to each other,” said Marge Maceda, a 25-year resident. “They’ll say hello and (because) it’s so small, you get to know your neighbors better. Over time, it becomes a real close community.”

Despite having relatively few commercial outlets or tourist attractions, the area has gained popularity for its low cost of living and its location to the Capitol and other prominent D.C. buildings and attractions.

“It’s really a convenient place to live,” said 11-year Southwest resident David Sobelsohn. “Much of Southwest is actually closer to the Capitol than some more expensive parts of Northwest … the rent is comparable to what you’d pay out in Vienna or Falls Church, but if I lived out there, would I take advantage of the museums, the theaters, all the things that D.C. has to offer? Probably not as much.”

Sobelsohn said he’s worried about the changes that the area’s newfound popularity could bring. His concern is that with increased interest in the land, some of the area’s current residents will be unable to afford to continue living there.

“Southwest is being invaded by real estate developers who see this as a great opportunity to invest in what’s really a hidden gem of the city – which is great, but the residents need to be watchful, to make sure this doesn’t create a great deal of dislocation,” he said.

With change seemingly imminent, Hamilton, along with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and the Westminster Presbyterian Church, decided to do something to “bring more real cultural bonds to the neighborhood.”

Hamilton instituted a weekly Friday jazz night and fish fry at Westminster, which features local jazz artists, in hopes of recapturing some of the musical verve that was once central to the cultural life of the neighborhood. Hamilton said that at different times, Southwest was home to a gamut of musicians, from Al Jolson to Marvin Gaye.

“There was a time when segregation was a de facto part of life in this city, and so the people in this area would band together. They’d get together over music and food … What we do is very much a revival of that sort of cultural institution, that kind of bond,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton also helped create a catering company, Southwest Catering, which makes food to sell at the weekly get-together. Hamilton said that the company is meant as the first of many initiatives to provide job training and employment to area residents.

“We really need to be training people in artisan-based, labor-intensive jobs, getting them training from the ground up … a lot of folks just fall into a crack, education wise, and it’s hard to find a way out of that without some help,” Hamilton said.

Although challenges certainly face Southwest, residents say they have come to rely on one another and the bond of living in one of city’s most intimate neighborhoods.

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