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The neighborhoods of Marshall Heights, Benning Heights, and Capitol View—along with everything else in the surrounding areas—are known collectively as “the Shrimp Boat.” The area takes its nickname from the seafood eatery that sits right at the intersection of Benning Road and East Capitol Street NE. It makes sense that the Shrimp Boat is the area’s defining landmark, because for a long time it was its only landmark.
The Shrimp Boat predates the Metro, the Denny’s, and pretty much anything else that breaks up the landscape of ’50s-style single family homes and low-rise apartments.
Countless news outlets have noted the area’s nickname. Referring to this cluster as the Shrimp Boat is no longer a quaint practice of neighborhood insiders—the area is the Shrimp Boat, just as much as it is Marshall Heights or Capitol View.
But the thing is, not many folks actually eat at the Shrimp Boat anymore. Although the T-shirts that hang outside of the restaurant sell like hotcakes, the fish inside—not so much. You’d be hard-pressed to find a stream of people coming in or out even at peak times. Besides, there’s a lot more crammed into the vast area bound by Benning Road and Capitol Heights, Md., than there was five, 10, or even 20 years ago.
The area might be due for a nickname change.
There is no reason the cluster couldn’t be called “Fat Face BBQ,” for the rib shack on East Capitol Street SE, or “Shoe City,” for the branch of the ubiquitous footwear store down on Minnesota Avenue, or anything else that highlights the fact that this cluster is changing.
During the ’60s and ’70s, these solidly African-American communities were notable for being leafy residential areas with close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and D.C. General Hospital. But being near a stadium that no longer hosts football games and right down the street from a public hospital that no longer hosts patients (save for those in a detox center and an STD clinic) doesn’t mean much.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, the area was marred by crime. The Benning Terrace housing development on G Street SE was site of the horrifically violent “Simple City” war between rival crews that raged well into the 1990s, before a truce was reached.
Physically, HUDson Valley is defined by short row houses and single-family homes on side streets, encircled by large public housing and apartment complexes on the main drags. But a lot of the huge housing developments have been bulldozed or are being redesigned, particularly along East Capitol Street, with the help of federal dollars and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In terms of commercial development, there is a “Benning Road NE Corridor Redevelopment Framework Plan” in the works, according to the city’s Office of Planning. The plan outlines various changes to be made all along the major artery, including new retail and physical improvements in the Benning Road Metro/Shrimp Boat area.
While a fancy city-run plan is a good indicator of the impending redevelopment of a neighborhood, Benning Road recently acquired an even more reliable bellwether of change: a Tropicana Jamaican eatery.
Tropicana, which popped up on the strip just a few weeks ago, has become a beacon of urban revitalization—even more so than a coffee shop or any business catering to pets. Just ask the residents of Shaw, “Silver Sprung,” and the increasingly desirable neighborhood surrounding the Good Hope Marketplace over on Alabama Avenue SE, all of whom have experienced the makeover magic of a Tropicana outpost.
And if tough times sink the Shrimp Boat, Tropicana is a pretty cool nickname for a neighborhood.
• Woodlawn Cemetery at 4611 Benning Road SE was established in 1895 and is the final resting place for scores of prominent African-Americans: Blanche K. Bruce, who was born a slave and became a Reconstruction-era U.S. Senator; James F. Bundy, secretary/treasurer of Howard University Law School from 1890 until 1914; and countless other black scholars, authors, artists, doctors, and lawyers.
• The Benning Road area spawned what is considered the city’s first major-label rap group—the Section 8 Mob. The Mob was signed to Tommy Boy records for a time and, as an homage to their hood, filmed one of their very first music videos at the Benning Road Metro station.
• The massive apartment/condominium complex of Fort Chaplain Park Apartments is, like the cluster itself, bisected by East Capitol Street, making it the only apartment community in the city with addresses in two different quadrants.