City Paper is not for tourists
To bring steamed crabs and spiced shrimp back to Georgia Avenue, Morgan’s Seafood proprietor Romeo Morgan needs more than a touch of Old Bay.
Photographs by Charles Steck
The first time somebody crashed a car through Morgan’s Seafood on Georgia Avenue, Romeo Morgan just happened to be pulling up to the store. It was May 13, 1994. At the time of the crash, Morgan had been managing his family’s carryout business on his own for just a few months.
He didn’t normally swing by the store in the mornings. But that day, he says, he had gotten up early: He had “a sixth sense” that something was wrong.
The sinking feeling that his business was in trouble was less a matter of superstition than it was of geography. Morgan’s Seafood occupies the northwest corner of Georgia Avenue and Kenyon Street NW, in the Parkview neighborhood. Unlike the businesses on the other three corners, Morgan’s Seafood faces the oncoming cars barrelling down Kenyon Street—a one-way residential street transformed into a mini-two-lane highway by crosstown traffic. Every day, hundreds of vehicles come flying down Kenyon Street at around 40 mph. Anyone slow on the brake can easily wind up colliding with the traffic on Georgia Avenue or take out a street lamp. Or slam into Morgan’s Seafood.
That’s exactly what happened the morning Morgan had his premonition. Moments before he arrived, a vehicle coming down Kenyon Street ran a red light and struck a white Jeep driving on Georgia Avenue, according to a newspaper account of the crash. The Jeep swerved off the road, jumped the curb, and lodged itself in the front door of Morgan’s Seafood. “I had to do a reality check,” Morgan says. “I was like, ‘OK, why is there a car in the front door?’”
According to Morgan, the Jeep busted down the door without sustaining major damage. The driver wasn’t harmed, either, but he wouldn’t budge from his seat. He just sat there staring through his windshield at Sheba, Morgan’s pet 140-pound Rottweiler, who had clambered onto the Jeep’s hood.
Morgan had left Sheba in the carryout to guard the place at night. “When you crash into a building, you don’t expect this big Rottweiler to come out,” he says with a chuckle. “[The driver] was scared witless.”
Morgan says his insurance paid to replace the front door. But when it came time to renew his policy, the insurance company refused. “The insurance company told me that that corner was a liability,” Morgan says.
The actuaries proved to be prescient. One evening about a year later, a couple of police officers in a cruiser were chasing a stolen car—an Oldsmobile—down Georgia Avenue.
“I was cookin’ some fish on the grill when the [Oldsmobile] came through,” says Terry Street, Romeo’s half-brother. “I took off runnin’. I had to jump over the fish counter
and keep on goin’. I was lucky enough to run farther than them and not get hit.”
Street learned later from the police that the officers in pursuit had hit the Oldsmobile and forced it off the road—and into the storefront. The cruiser ended up on the sidewalk outside the carryout. Inside the Oldsmobile were “three or four young guys,” recalls Street. Police arrested two of the suspects. The rest took off.
The drivers of the Oldsmobile nearly pulled off the Hollywood stunt of driving clear through the building—a cinder-block addition in the rear of the store stopped them, says Morgan. Along the way, the car took out a couple of support beams, causing the ceiling over the addition to collapse. Three large boards on the Georgia Avenue side of Morgan’s Seafood mark the point of entry. Trees have begun to grow inside the addition, which remains open to the sky to this day.
Morgan didn’t see the extent of the damage right away. The day of the crash, he was hundreds of miles away on his annual sojourn in Trinidad. (His father is West Indian.) Street called him to deliver the bad news.
“He asked if I was sitting or standing,” Morgan says. “I said, ‘I’m in the kitchen. What difference does it make?!’ And my brother said, ‘You better sit for this one.’”
“I said, ‘Man, you won’t believe this,’” Street recalls. “‘They just ran into the store again.’”
In addition to mowing down a few pillars, the second crash wiped out Morgan’s entire business. Without insurance, Morgan says, he didn’t have the funds to make the necessary repairs and reopen. Morgan says he wrote the mayor, the chief of police—anyone who might be able to help him get some relief from the District. After all, he notes, “I wouldn’t be having these problems if a police car hadn’t [chased a car] into my store.” District officials didn’t respond, he says. City building inspectors eventually declared the property “vacant-improved” and “abandoned,” city property records show.
Ever since the Olds incident, Morgan has struggled to bring spiced shrimp and steamed crabs back to Georgia Avenue. No one, though, seems to be cooperating—not the D.C. government, certainly not the area’s enterprising burglars. “If people see me bring in something in there they think they can steal, they will,” he notes.
His is a common gripe among business owners up and down Georgia Avenue. In response, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recently opened a substation at Georgia Avenue and Park Road to better cover the lower portions of the corridor. But Morgan doubts that the added police presence is much more than good press-release copy. After all, nothing changed after 1992, when President Bill Clinton paid a visit to Georgia Avenue and pledged his support for small businesses. And nothing changed after 2000, when Mayor Anthony Williams announced that tens of millions of dollars would follow the relocation of the Department of Motor Vehicles headquarters to a site by the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station. (The DMV headquarters is off the table now because of community opposition; District planning officials are back at Square One.)
Morgan has always figured he’ll have to revive Morgan’s on his own. He can’t afford to wait for the government. In August, he signed a lease for a space down the street from Morgan’s. He says he wants to open a night club there—”Club Romi Rome.” But he has to have Morgan’s Seafood up and running to generate the cash he needs to finance the club. “I have no choice but to move forward,” Morgan says. “I’m committed.”
Romeo Morgan, who grew up in LeDroit Park, first went to work at Morgan’s Seafood when he was 13. By then, he says, his older brothers were already cooking crabs and cleaning fish at a second location, Morgan’s Seafood on Maine Avenue SW. They told him that he could join them—but only if his Uncle Ricky said so.
When Morgan went to see his uncle, Maurice “Ricky” Morgan, he got an impromptu lesson in customer service—Morgan’s style. “Somebody was kickin’ on a soda machine,” he recalls. “[Ricky] comes out and says, ‘Why are you kicking the soda machine?’ The guy says, ‘Motherfucker took my money.’ So my uncle took out a .38, pointed at him, says, ‘Yeah? Well, take this.’ And the guy took off.”
Ricky dispatched Romeo to the waterfront location, where he started out on the crab line, catching and tossing bushels of crabs. “They’d toss you a bushel of crabs. Before you get a chance to toss another one, you better turn around or you’re about to be hit by two bushels of crabs,” he says. “One time, I made a mistake. It didn’t feel too good to be hit by a bushel of crabs in the back.”
Morgan moved up to working the steam line, cooking crabs from opening until closing. Then he graduated to fish cleaning—”an easy job.” His apprenticeship should have ended then, but “because I was so hardheaded, they sent me up to Georgia Avenue for further punishment, to be with Big Morgan all day.”
Morris Morgan, aka Big Morgan, was Ricky Morgan’s father and the founder of Morgan’s Seafood. Morris Morgan opened the carryout on Georgia Avenue around 1965, according to Ricky. Before that, Morris Morgan owned a pool hall on the street for many years. Morris Morgan eventually built a mini-real-estate empire at the corner of Georgia and Kenyon NW, buying up a couple of buildings behind Morgan’s, as well as a gas station across the street. He kept a close eye on all his businesses. Romeo Morgan says that Big Morgan’s employees learned to fear the sight of his gold Mercedes, his wide-brimmed hat, and his cigar.
“You were scared to work there,” he says. “You didn’t want to make a mistake around Big Morgan. You didn’t want to get yelled at after you saw how he yelled at other people.”
“Plus,” he adds, “the chief of police would be there, the mayor, the assistant chief of police, councilmembers, congressmen.”
“Everybody knew Morgan,” says Ricky Morgan, aka Little Morgan. “He could be a tough man if you got on the wrong side of him. He had a good heart, though. And he loved that neighborhood.”
Between the food and the high-powered crowd filling the handful of seats inside, the carryout quickly became a landmark “like the Florida Avenue Grill or Ben’s Chili Bowl,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Marie Whitfield, who was Morris Morgan’s longtime girlfriend. “People would come from out of town to eat there.”
“There always was a crowd at night, from 5 to 10 or 11 o’clock,” says Alonzo Gibbs, a barber at Van & Frank’s Barber Shop, across the street from Morgan’s.
“Morgan’s was a fixture,” says Kenneth Mitchell, a 44-year Parkview resident. “Celebrities of all sorts came to Morgan’s. Cosby. Belafonte. [Morris Morgan] had their pictures all over the wall. He had Kennedys up there—just Ted, though, not John or none of them.”
Former Mayor Walter Washington says he was once a regular customer at both Morgan’s locations. So was his successor, Marion Barry. For at least two summers in the ’80s, Morgan’s Seafood catered a two-day crab fest at Barry’s home, says Ricky Morgan. Romeo Morgan recalls that Hizzoner’s favorite dish was fried hard-shelled crabs.
At first, Morris Morgan was like any other fish vendor on the waterfront, except that instead of working off a boat, he had a stand on land. After a year or so, he got an exclusive permit to sell cooked seafood on the wharf.
For years, Morgan’s Seafood maintained its monopoly on steamed crabs. It was also the only minority-owned business on the wharf. Neither fact won Morgan any friends among his competition. “[Wholesale seafood] vendors wouldn’t sell to us because of the color of our skin,” Ricky Morgan recalls. “If [the fishmongers on the wharf] found out that a wholesaler had sold to us, they would cut them off.”
Morris Morgan found a way around the cartel. “We used to drive out to this parking lot in Maryland—it used to be an open field—and meet the [seafood wholesaler’s] truck there and transact business that way,” Ricky Morgan recalls.
As a new generation took over the fish market on the wharf, however, Ricky Morgan says his father no longer had to resort to clandestine seafood trades.
Ricky Morgan tried to keep his father’s business going after Big Morgan died, in 1983. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, fishmongers on the wharf won permits to sell cooked seafood from their boats, stripping the Morgan clan of its monopoly. “That was the demise of our business,” Ricky Morgan says.
About the same time, the corner of Georgia and Kenyon was becoming what former 4th District officer Lt. Diane Groomes describes as “Heroin Central.” Drug dealers could count on a steady flow of customers from the methadone clinic a block away at Georgia Avenue and Irving Street. “People were afraid to come up on that corner,” says Ricky Morgan. “The drug addicts just ran people off.”
Ricky Morgan fell behind on his tax payments, Recorder of Deeds documents show. And in 1993, Ricky Morgan filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A seafood wholesaler eventually bought out the Morgan’s location on the wharf, and Romeo Morgan became the proprietor of the Georgia Avenue location.
“My goal was just to keep the family business going,” Romeo Morgan says. “It wasn’t about me being happy.”
The funny thing about Romeo Morgan’s devotion to his family’s business is that he’s not even part of the family—at least not by blood.
Romeo Morgan, in fact, wasn’t even Romeo Morgan until 2000. According to court records, he was born Anthony R. Williams, “a name I never liked,” he says.
Morgan says he changed his name after being picked up twice by police on a warrant for a different Anthony R. Williams. (D.C. Superior Court records indicate that he was picked up once in 1989 on a fugitive warrant and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the charges.) Changing his name, Morgan says, was the best way he could think of to stop any confusion with the wrong Anthony Williams.
When he considered what name to adopt, Morgan was the obvious choice. As for “Romeo,” he says it’s a nickname he’s had since junior high, when he started to write poetry.
Romeo Morgan’s name switch adds another twist to an already tangled family tree. “[Ricky Morgan] is my uncle through family. How it is, I couldn’t even tell you,” says Romeo Morgan. “Somewhere down the line, we’re related through marriage.”
“It’s a big family,” says Ricky Morgan. “Somewhere there, [Romeo] is my nephew.”
Of course, Romeo Morgan has a hard time remembering how old he is, let alone his place in the family. “I don’t know [my age],” he says. “I don’t celebrate birthdays. It’s against my religion.” (Morgan is a Rastafarian.) He then pulls out his wallet, checks his driver’s license, and announces his birthday. He’s 36.
The genealogical confusion is more understandable when Romeo Morgan explains that he has 12 siblings “that I know of.” He says he’s met at least one half-brother whom his father doesn’t acknowledge. He himself claims to have 12 children: “five biological and seven that I raised.”
Before Romeo Morgan started working at Morgan’s Seafood, he says, he spent five years with the MPD. “I signed up as a cadet right after I graduated from Cardozo [Senior High School],” he says, at the urging of then-Police Chief Maurice Turner, a Morgan’s regular and a family friend.
Once a cadet, Morgan says, he worked mainly in Turner’s office at police headquarters, then spent one year as a full-fledged officer working in the 4th District.
Morgan quickly learned that being a cop wasn’t for him, especially in those days. “This was back in ’85, when the police shootings began and the homicide rate went up,” he says. After five years, he had had enough. “I couldn’t deal with it. I got tired of going after low-level drug dealers,” Morgan says. “A lot of them were nothing but kids selling drugs to feed their families.”
That’s certainly a standard ex-cop lament. The MPD, however, doesn’t have any record of an Anthony R. Williams or a Romeo Morgan having been a cadet or a sworn officer between 1980 and 1989, says department spokesperson Officer Kenneth Bryson.
Romeo Morgan says he received a certificate from the cadet program but lost it in a fire. The only remaining proof he has of his brief career as a D.C. cop is a mouse pad that his mother had made from a photograph that shows him wearing a police badge.
His family has mixed recollections of his law-enforcement career. Street says he remembers his brother working at the 4th District. Tylou Burnett, Romeo’s aunt, recalls only his training to be an officer. “At one time, [Romeo] was a cadet,” she says. Ricky Morgan says he can’t remember Romeo Morgan ever having worked for the police department, “but that’s not to say he didn’t.”
Romeo Morgan chalks up the his missing-in-action MPD personnel file to “just another day in the D.C. government.”
When Morgan’s Seafood went belly-up after the second car crash, Romeo Morgan had to find another way to earn a living. He returned to LeDroit Park, where he bought Cookie’s Corner, a small grocery store at 2nd and Elm Streets NW, across the street from a Howard University dormitory.
If you want to know what Morgan’s would be like if Romeo Morgan were running it again, all you have to do is stop in at his bodega any day of the week. Inside, Morgan stands outside his plexiglass-barricaded counter, dishing out wisecracks to everyone from the Hershey’s Ice Cream delivery man to the elderly fellow who stops in daily to pick up a can of beer and curse at him. Staples of Morgan’s repertoire include: “Said, ‘Keep the change?’ Thank you,” and “For you, that’ll be $50.”
When business lets up, Morgan turns to his laptop, which he uses to tap out some poetry. On a recent afternoon, he leaves his latest piece of inspiration on the open laptop at the front of the store for all to see. The poem reads:
She taught me to love just with her beauty and
Just listening to her voice, there was a calm
How did I come to love this woman with this
I often wonder, but just so you know. “I love my mama.”
“I’m thinking of selling it to Hallmark,” Morgan says.
After staring at the screen in silence for a minute, a young male customer howls: “Somebody get this corny poem off this table! It sucks!
“You just a playa, man,” he adds. “That’s game. That’s not poetry.”
Behind him, a woman digging through her purse for change comes to Morgan’s aid: “Men can exhale, too. It’s all right.”
“It’s Comedy Central in here,” Morgan quips.
Morgan enjoys sparring with his customers even when they’re trying to steal from him. He rattles off a few run-ins he’s had with shoplifters caught in the act. “I’ve been bit in the middle of the forehead. I had to slam a guy’s head in the glass door once. I replaced the glass. Then, a week later, I had to do the same thing again. That’s when I got plastic. It doesn’t break,” he says, knocking on the door and chuckling.
Not all of Morgan’s security measures work out so well. Last year, after he says he looked down the wrong side of a pistol a few too many times, he bought a 12-gauge shotgun—only to find himself behind bars.
“I had bought the gun in Virginia, and I was on my way to …[the 3rd District] police station to register my gun,” he says. “My son was [at Cookie’s]. He called me on my cell saying he needed the keys to lock up the store.”
Morgan made the mistake of bringing his new shotgun inside—just as a patrol car was driving by. The police officers later said they’d caught sight of Morgan wielding a gun through the store’s door, court records show. The officers stopped to question Morgan. He explained his situation and even produced receipts from the gun shop. Police seized the shotgun anyway and arrested him on gun charges.
Morgan later pleaded guilty to one charge of possessing a prohibited weapon. In March, a D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced him to 24 hours’ unsupervised probation and a $50 fine.
Two or three nights a week, after he closes Cookie’s, Morgan heads up to Georgia Avenue to the Morgan’s location, “just to check on the property and make sure everything is secure.” And he counts on his neighbors on Georgia Avenue to call him whenever they see a break-in.
In 2000 alone, Morgan claims, burglars broke into the carryout 14 times, taking everything from pots and pans to autographed photos of politicians and celebrities that had been hanging on the walls.
“It’s 14 break-ins, right?” he asks Barbara Stewart, an employee at the liquor store next door to Morgan’s, one day.
“I don’t know the number,” she replies. “All I know is every time I turn around someone is up in there.”
Once, thieves made off with some go-carts Morgan bought for his kids. “I put two [go-carts] in the deep freezer and two in another area. But they cut the chain off the back fence and ripped the back wall off,” he says. “And this was in broad daylight. And ain’t nobody seen nothin’.”
Even Sheba the guard dog wasn’t safe from intruders. In December 1998, investigators with the Washington Humane Society, acting on a report of a neglected animal, obtained an emergency warrant to enter Morgan’s Seafood and collect Sheba. Ten days later, the dog was euthanized, according to a lawsuit that Morgan filed against the Humane Society last year.
“[The investigators] said that I neglected her,” he says. “If I wasn’t feeding her, then how come there was—excuse my language—urine and feces all over the place?” says Morgan.
The suit was later thrown out, but the incident still upsets Morgan. “I had her for 15 years,” he says. “She was like my child.” Humane Society Director of Humane Law Enforcement Rosemary Vozobule declined to comment for this story.
Morgan says he thinks he knows who sicced the Humane Society on him: the son of a former Morgan’s Seafood employee, who he suspects is responsible for a good number of the break-ins. “I know he did it,” says Morgan. “‘Cause someone broke in the next day.”
Fourth District detectives say they have only two reports of break-ins at Morgan’s for 1999 and none for 2000. Morgan says frustration stopped him from dialing 911: “It just got to the point where it didn’t make sense to keep calling.”
The gradual looting of Morgan’s Seafood continues unabated. In the spring, Morgan says, he spent $7,000 on new custom-made stainless-steel crab-steaming pots. One afternoon in mid-April, Stewart says, she saw a pickup truck pull in front of Morgan’s “like they were doing some work or something.” She says that she came outside for a look a little while later, only to see the truck peel off. “I said, ‘Look! They got Romeo’s crab pots!’”
“I put [the crab pots] in an area could nobody really see them, but someone broke in through the front, ripped out the siding and everything,” Morgan says.
Two weeks later, Mike Hill, who until June lived in an apartment building behind the carryout, called up Morgan about men on the roof of Morgan’s. “It was evening, so I didn’t think they were working. They were trying to break in,” says Hill. When Morgan arrived, one of the men Hill had seen was still there—-with a ladder, a chisel, and a blowtorch. Missing was the top of the carryout’s ventilation system. Police arrested the suspect, but Morgan says he’s looking at a $6,000 repair job.
“No matter how much I keep tryin’,” he says, “the devil keep standin’ on my shoulder.”
On the evening of Oct. 9, Morgan makes his way through the rain to the small, stuffy office of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A. When he squeezes through the door, the regular monthly meeting is already under way. He isn’t officially on the agenda, but the commissioners have agreed to set aside some time for him to make his case for Club Romi Rome.
Morgan sits down in a section of chairs set for the public. The room is so small, though, that the distinction between the dais and the gallery is practically nonexistent. When it comes time for Morgan to speak, he merely scoots up to one end, like an uninvited guest at a dinner party.
A few days earlier, Morgan made some inquiries with Alcoholic Beverage Control Board officials, who told him that a letter of support from his neighborhood commissioners would go a long way in helping him secure a liquor license.
Morgan has come without blueprints or even a photo of the site. He has brought only his vision for the club and his family’s history on Georgia Avenue. The latter goes a long way, at least with Commissioner Lenwood Johnson.
“Morgan’s Seafood was a good business when it was open,” Johnson tells his colleagues. “His family has been on Georgia Avenue for a long time.”
When some of the commissioners ask why Morgan’s is closed, Morgan launches into the tale of the two car crashes and the recent robberies of his ventilation system and the crab pots.
“My first goal is to get Morgan’s back together,” he says. “Then have the club across the street.”
Club Romi Rome would give people a reason to come to Georgia Avenue at night, Morgan says. “The basement is going to be a lounge-type area where people can just sit back and chill, maybe eat some food. The second floor is like the VIP area. The first floor is gonna be the dance floor.”
There won’t be live acts or go-go bands—just DJs, says Morgan. Some nights will be Caribbean music or Latin rhythms, other nights oldies but goodies. And, of course, there will be a ladies night, “because y’all ladies demand that you have your personal night.”
“And no athletic wear,” he adds. “It won’t be nothin’ like, you know, ‘You can’t come in unless you all dressed up.’ It’ll be different situations on different nights.”
A couple of the commissioners aren’t warming to the idea at all. “You want us to approve a nightclub on Georgia Avenue when we’re trying to keep nightclubs off the 14th Street corridor?” asks Eric Heard.
“What about noise?” asks another commissioner.
“It’s a brick building,” Morgan replies. “Sound can’t get out. I already tested it. I went in there and turned up the DJ system as loud as it would go, and you couldn’t hear nothin’ outside.”
And parking? Morgan says the owners of a liquor store and of a market across the street from Morgan’s Seafood have agreed to let Club Romi Rome customers park in their lots.
Somewhat placated, the commissioners reluctantly agree to draft Morgan a letter granting their preliminary blessing to his concept. After all, one of them says, Georgia Avenue needs all the business it can get.
Morgan has never run a club before. But he says he’s been interested in getting into the club business since his days at Morgan’s Seafood. He met many of the local club owners through catering. From there, he says, he dabbled in a little entertainment promotion. “L.T.D., remember them? Love, Togetherness, and Devotion? I used to promote them,” he says. “Also, this group called Simba, but they only had one album. That was, like, back in ’84.”
“Romi Rome,” he explains, is a nickname a clubowner friend used to call him.
Morgan says he decided he wanted to become a club owner about three years ago. The glamour of the job doesn’t appeal to him, or even the chance to be around a lot of beautiful ladies.
“It’s less work,” he says. “Like working at a grocery store—it’s an 18-hour a day job. Working at Morgan’s is like an 18-hour-a-day job, sometimes 24 hours. But working at a nightclub is like a six-hour job.”
If Club Romi Rome gets going, Morgan says he’ll probably lease out Cookie’s. He’s only biding his time there anyway, before he can return to Georgia Avenue—and to Morgan’s.
Part of the pull of his family’s business is simple economics. “I mean, it’s about just doing what it takes to survive. The thing is that when you’re dealing with one functioning business that’s like a grocery store here, the sales you make off groceries here are five and 10 cents, whereas at Morgan’s, you make $1 off a fish sandwich. That’s a big difference in revenue.”
But money isn’t everything, or else Morgan would’ve cut his losses by now, crab pots and all. Reviving Morgan’s Seafood is a simple matter of family pride. “My biggest thing with Morgan’s is to prove to people my family business hasn’t gone anywhere,” he says. “My great-uncle worked too hard to build up what we have.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.