Fish-fry founder John Campbell
Fish-fry founder John Campbell Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Jerry Goodwin was about 10 miles away from his childhood home last Friday night when he heard a familiar voice: “Campbell’s fish fry tomorrow.” He was at a concert by the Navy Yard where he ran into an old friend who had just heard from another friend, “Campbell’s fish fry tomorrow.” Goodwin called two more friends and the word fanned, bringing in more than 200 people from across the D.C. area.

“It just grows like that,” Goodwin says. “I knew it was about this time of year, but you have to hear it from your friends to bring you back.”

Twenty-six years ago, John Campbell hosted his first annual fish fry on the fourth Saturday in June, paid out of his own pocket. It was a way for the barber to preach to youth like Goodwin and “give back to the neighborhood.” Campbell still pays for it himself (although he won’t say how much he spends), but these days he leaves the preaching to a gospel choir, and he won’t call the streets behind Marvin Gaye Park his—or anybody else’s—neighborhood. Because you can’t call the empty lot that once contained the projects on East Capitol Street (and reared the singer Marvin Gaye) a neighborhood.

What you can call it is a place that bore a community that knows how to stay in touch.

No Facebook postings, no ads, and now this year, not even a single flyer. In years past, Campbell used to tack a few flyers to the window of his barbershop, just around the corner from the park. But those windows were boarded up last year, when Campbell’s Barber Shop became the last of the old businesses to move out and make room for new growth. The shop relocated to a spot near Benning Road and H Street SE in August and took many of its old patrons with it. But the fish fry is still going strong, an old-fashioned word-of-mouth event in a city that sometimes seems ready to ignore anything that doesn’t have its own official Twitter feed.

Goodwin can remember sweeping around chairs in the old shop as a boy in the ’80s, earning a few bucks while his dad got a haircut. He and men like him came back to the shop even after the city tore down their homes in 2001. And they still make the trek from neighborhoods around D.C. to find each other at the new location. The crew that came early last Saturday to unpack coleslaw and waddle propane tanks across the field is only further proof of the loyalty Campbell inspires.

“A lot of the men you see here were misfits as children,” says Tameka Lewis-Robinson, mother of a so-called misfit, as she lays out 30 loaves of bread. “They really saw Campbell as the father-figure that a lot of them never had.”

Campbell himself is pouring warm water over 300 pounds of frozen whiting, thawing before he fries. Later he will roll each piece in a secret blend of spices and flour, sink it into a vat of oil, and serve it up with 100 pounds of crispy potatoes.

He takes the first plate to Emily Campbell, 67, his sister. “Ma,” as most know her, says her phone rang 50 times this morning, so she “just had to come.” She has been waiting patiently, her skinny arms braced on a folding chair while her grandchildren lift her long braids to spray her neck with bug repellent. She takes the plate on her lap, picks off a crispy corner, and smiles to find the family recipe unchanged. Campbell is already back at the fryer, his blue pants spotted white with flour. Delivering fish to his sister will be the only time he leaves his post for six hours.

The sign outside this entrance to the park reads “Campbell’s green,” and you can tell who’s in charge here. Campbell says he takes no donations and serves the food to grease-soaked plates until everything he bought is devoured. In line, there are babies held to hips by acrylic nails and old men in suits hunched over canes. But the longest stretch—the part that looks like a family—is made of men with just a few dashes of salt in their hair, who know Campbell as “Doc.” They came of age together just a few blocks from here in the ’80s and ’90s, when the streets were turning violent. They’re part of the reason the fry still comes together.

One of them, Maurice “Mo” Robinson, 43, went to prison in 1999 and came home in 2007 to find his apartment off East Capitol Street replaced with town homes that his conviction precludes him from inhabiting. Across the street is an empty and overgrown lot that has now been waiting 10 years for development. “The new neighborhood is not the same,” Robinson says while waiting for seconds. “Only a few people were allowed to move back in.”

He has to yell to be heard when the gospel band starts to get fired up in the late afternoon. Before Campbell’s fish fry, there was Campbell’s “fun fest,” which entertained a much younger crowd with contemporary music in the early ’80s. By 1984, the crowd had grown so large and unruly that attendees bashed cars and ran off with the money Campbell had raised in donations. Today, Campbell swats his spatula at anyone who cuts in line.

“I brought in the gospel choir because they seemed to calm everybody down and have a positive impact on the youth,” Campbell says. He is talking to the Rev. Marcus Turner Sr., the head pastor of nearby Beulah Baptist Church and one of the few dignitaries to approach the fryer.

Campbell handed his old shop over to the church to develop, a move he assures everyone was voluntary. “I was not forced out of this neighborhood, I did it to help the community,” he says, changing into his prophetic tone. “Out of one, there will come many.”

The fourth Saturday in June is one of the longest days of the year. At the fish fry, the crowd stays until dusk, wiping greasy hands on long dresses and bouncing to the music. Old-timers push toward the band, singing, “I’m gonna tell God how you treated me, down on my knees.” The younger folks fan out to the edge of the green, some sipping tequila out of Styrofoam. When all the food is gone, the crowd begins to thin. After all, most of them have a long trip home.