Congress may be set to give $3 million to Southwest’s fish wharf, but Peyton Barton still says he’s in a shark tank.
The waterfront cliches: Foggy. Feisty. Fishy.
It’s where Marlon Brando’s has-been boxer battles in the fight of his life against a corrupt longshoremen’s union. It’s where Corleone family strongman Luca Brasi sleeps with the indigenous aquatic population.
And at 1100 Maine Ave. SW, it’s where Peyton Barton sells $5 croaker sandwiches and $7 crab-cake dinners complete with coleslaw, French fries, hush puppies, and two slices of bread. Unlike the Pruitt, Evans, and White families, which have been fixtures at D.C.’s open-air fish market for generations, Barton’s a relative newcomer to the wharf. After battling with city officials and fellow vendors for almost a decade, Barton assumed the lease on the small blue building in the fish wharf’s parking lot three years ago.
Barton claims that a round of freshman fishmonger hazing began soon after his arrival. Vandals ransacked and robbed his business on a number of occasions, he says, adding that the other wharf merchants experienced no problems.
“Doesn’t that strike you as a little strange?” he asks, jotting down an order for a whiting sandwich. A former offensive linesman for Furman University, Barton retains a fairly imposing physical presence.
And he’s not easily intimidated. After a life-threatening illness—he says he got it from a crab wound—and resulting personal financial woes temporarily shut down his business, Barton got back on his feet and prepared for Maine Avenue Seafood’s reopening at the beginning of September. Although he insists he jumped through all the legal hoops to secure business licenses and permits, Barton says he received frequent visits by inspectors from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. And, Barton claims, the inspectors seemed to make only one stop at the wharf.
“Doesn’t that seem a little strange?” Barton repeats, like a mantra.
About a week later, Barton says he got his biggest surprise: On Sept. 17, during the Friday lunch rush, a man came into Maine Avenue Seafood looking for Barton. He wasn’t interested in the secret to his crab cakes. He hand-delivered a letter from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Although the fish wharf is officially on federal land, the District of Columbia acts as its overseer and landlord.
“Your tenancy is being terminated because the current use of the property is inconsistent with the improvement plans for the premises,” the letter read. “This notice to vacate the premises will expire on Oct. 31, 1999 and you, Peyton Barton, d.b.a., Maine Avenue Seafood, must vacate the premises on or before November 1, 1999 as prescribed in D.C. Code.”
“It’s personal,” Barton whispers—though he won’t interrupt his conspiracy-mongering to say with whom. Other fish vendors? Sure, Barton admits, he’s had some quibbles in the past. The city? Yeah, well, he’s not the easiest guy to deal with, and he’s ruffled more than a few feathers.
But Barton’s main foe may be the biggest fish in D.C.’s little pond: Congress.
Barton may not realize it, but his eviction notice was about 50 years in the making. And his problems have less to do with the Hollywood tradition of waterfront malfeasance than Southwest Washington’s recent history as a playground for planners, schemers, and dreamers. In the 1950s, more than 90 percent of the quadrant’s buildings were torn down in a utopian project to erase “blight.” Ever since, the neighborhood—especially its few corners that weren’t built since World War II—has at times enticed every player in D.C.’s jurisdictional jumble, from Congress to the D.C. Council. It seems that everyone has a plan to push the fish vendors into the future.
So instead of a mob-movie back lot, Barton’s problems begin right at home in D.C. More specifically, at Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) home in Southwest, which is a yacht moored in the Washington Channel near the fish wharf, at the Capital Yacht Club. Cunningham, who shops at the wharf and the adjoining Washington Marina, has taken a special interest in his neighbors.
And since many fishermen call Maryland and Virginia home, their congressmen—specifically Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Herbert Bateman (R-Va.)—have an ear to fishmonger concerns as well. The wharf has other admirers in both the House and Senate, including Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who often stops in on Fridays for a round of oysters. In fact, the relatively obscure strip of land along the Washington Channel was important enough to Cunningham, Gilchrest, and Bateman that they had a sit-down with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton last February to talk leases.
When urban renewal condemned Southwest to a future of uniform brown-brick condominiums and town houses, the wharf remained its last gritty remnant of the old days, standing in refreshing contrast to the antiseptic architecture surrounding it. At that time, the city signed 99-year leases with the other waterfront tenants, including the restaurants that line Water Street SW, but not the fishmongers. They received a shorter lease, which expired in 1996. Since then, they have been renting on a month-to-month basis.
During last year’s wrangling over D.C.’s budget, Cunningham—who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District—slipped in an amendment that allocated $3 million for Southwest waterfront improvements. The bill stipulated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conduct a study—and designated the remainder of the money for use in carrying out its recommendations.
It was a huge gift, with one caveat sure to please the established fishmongers: “Provided, That no portion of such funds shall be available to the District of Columbia for carrying out such improvements unless the District of Columbia executes a 30-year lease with existing lessees, or with their successors in interest, of such portions of property not later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act.” The bill was a first step in the latest barrage of attention to the waterfront—which, for Barton, culminated in his notice to vacate.
Long-term leases would immunize the fishmongers from the long succession of proposals to reinvent the wharf. Unlike other cities, Washington’s waterfront is largely undeveloped. Over the past decade, a number of plans have been commissioned by the D.C. government to make the wharf a retail mecca much like Baltimore’s Harborplace and New York’s South Street Seaport. One such plan, cooked up under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, called for the fish merchants to abandon their ramshackle barges and move indoors into pavilions.
The fishmongers put up a royal stink, including a letter-writing campaign against the plan that sent 20,000 letters to both Kelly and Norton.
And when election time rolled around, the fishmongers punished Kelly even more. Days before the 1994 mayoral election, the Washington Post reported that Southwest fish wharf businesses had pumped $9,000 into the campaign coffers of her opponent, Marion Barry. Many of the contributors linked to seafood concerns had no knowledge of their contributions. The fishing village of Onancock, Va.—home to the owners of Pruitt’s Seafood—included six Barry contributors. Between Capitol Hill and One Judiciary Square, that much political attention fires up just the kinds of allegations of unfair secret cabals that Barton is all too happy to make.
When the fiscal year ended, at the end of September, city officials had yet to sign leases with the fishmongers, and the $3 million appropriation went unspent. Though the allocation was not included in the appropriations bill vetoed by President Clinton last month, sympathetic House members have been scrambling to put it in the new version.
City officials have stepped up efforts to negotiate leases and hope to reach agreements with vendors soon. In the meantime, the city used its own money to pay for the Army Corps of Engineers assessment, which was completed in July.
The corps suggests four alternatives for dealing with Barton’s building: abandon it, renovate it, demolish it and replace it with a new structure, or do nothing at all. It didn’t endorse any course of action—but DHCD has since told Barton to haul his bass out of the waterfront and plans on demolishing the building.
The city has decided to preserve the fish-cleaning building across from Barton, which has been declared historic. The preservation means that the wharf restrooms and the garbage disposal behind the building will need to be moved. City officials insist that the only place to put them is in the vicinity of Maine Avenue Seafood.
And, they hint, there are other reasons as well. “The building that Peyton Barton occupies is not much more than a shack, so you can see why we’d want to tear it down for aesthetic reasons,” says Joseph Wolf, project manager for DHCD.
Barton scoffs at the implication. He says he’s plowed almost $60,000 into the building—repainting it, making capital improvements, and replacing refrigerators, cookers, and counters.
City officials counter that Barton acted without their consent.
“We’re all on a month-to-month lease,” Barton says. “What was I supposed to do?”
The city offered Barton a lease for a spot on the water, but he refused. Barton says he countered with a plan for a new building, which city officials say they never received.
Barton says that he’s heard nothing about the improvement plans from city officials. “I’ve called [former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development] Doug Patton’s office 100 times,” Barton insists. “Because I’m a little guy, they don’t want to talk to me.”
And Barton probably will get little help from his fellow watermen. In 1989, Barton says, he parked two fishing vessels in empty wharf spots. Soon after, both boats sank “pretty damn quick.” Barton points out that the White family now has a flotilla in that spot. The Whites wouldn’t speak about Barton’s predicament. The other fish vendors referred calls to attorneys—who also refused to speak on the record.
Of course, while he’s quick to imply that there’s a conspiracy against him, Barton’s not so eager to let his evidence be investigated too closely. After he alleges that a competitor has tampered with his mail, he brandishes a stack of opened letters. When I reach to look at them, he snatches them back. “Don’t touch,” he scolds. “They have fingerprints on them.”
Barton says that despite the city’s letter—and despite ongoing machinations over leases and appropriations—he’ll stay put the day after Halloween. “I just can’t walk away from it,” he says. “They might run me out of here, but they’re not going to run me away.” CP