Washington D.C. prizes connections above all, but some connections are so implicit as to be invisible. In a city so fond of the overt, that is a death sentence.
Consider the Potomac River.
If there is a more implicit connection than the river’s existence and the city’s, let someone drag it forth. The capital rose where it did because the Potomac flowed as it did. Ever since, Washington has been forgetting it has a waterfront.
Of course, D.C. is not alone. Bodies of water and cities interact with a sinister transubstantiation accomplished over centuries. Show me an urban river, and I’ll show you a sewer—and the glimmer of a future in which the river in the city is prized instead of polluted.
A palpable connection is re-emerging along the Potomac. Down on Maine Avenue SW you can buy seafood by the bushel or the plateful and you can ride a cruise ship into the noonday glare or the gloaming. You can amble to RiverFest. Along the Tidal Basin, you can shower worms and doughballs on the carp and channel cats that burble beneath the wavelets. You can stand on the Kennedy Center terrace and watch the sailboarders skim. In Georgetown, you can trip along the fancy new dock at Washington Harbour.
Still, the river that willed the city into existence exists at a distance from the city. We cross the booger-colored water on bridges. We shadow it in airplanes and helicopters. We drive parallel to it on parkways. Once it has been cleaned—mostly—of its amoebic and bacterial burden, we drink it. We cook with it and water our tomatoes with it. We are practically immersed in the Potomac, but we rarely touch the river qua river, and it rarely touches us.
Not without reason. Like the nation’s other great urban rivers, the Potomac spent the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries strapped to the wheel of commerce. By the 20th it exuded the stink of the grave—a stink it can still summon mightily on a warm day. Whiff that once, and you think: My God, who in his right mind would get anywhere near the Potomac, never mind hang around it, or, saints preserve us, swim in it?
A few weeks ago, I was on the river, working the bow of a rented canoe in search of answers. At 6:30 a.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, three of us hauled a battered Grumman to the dock at Fletcher’s Boathouse, down river from Chain Bridge: me, photographer Darrow Montgomery perched amidships, and W, an environmental—as opposed to environmentalist—lawyer who was willing to paddle if he could keep his profile low.
The assignment was to examine the Potomac waterfront: the place where the land meets the water; a conjoining of dissimilarities; a line marking an essential transaction, yet slippery and fragile. Last year’s docking can be this year’s deepest fishing hole; the harbor of epochs past, a wading pool.
But the waterfront is also eternal. At Fletcher’s, where the last riffles of Potomac rapids yield to the estuarine river, it has been about a million years since any serious change took place, and as we pushed off the place looked it—empty, green, and, save for a speckling of trash and the overhead hum of vehicles and planes invisible in the overcast, about as primal a location as you can find inside the city line. Paddling past bare-dirt fishing spots marked by improvised benches, we saw deer, ducks, rails, geese, a beaver, and a sphincter-tightening knot of water snakes. A bit farther downstream, the Three Sisters Islands suddenly hove into view, and behind them the pink town drowsing. On the D.C. bank, a ghostly bicyclist rocketed along the path paved over the old railroad right-of-way leading to Georgetown.
Pausing for the requisite interlude atop one of the Sisters, I scanned the shore. At the end of the 18th century, this stretch was home to the city’s first heavy industry. On one of the earliest sole-source federal contracts, the Columbian Foundry manufactured cannon and shot for the baby nation’s Army and Navy, enriching owner Henry Foxall.
Where Foxall had made artillery, I could make out more benign weaponry: poles and tackle boxes. Reginald Goodman, Winston Jackson, and Tony Long had arrived for a morning of what they hoped would be more than fish-feeding. The only person actually dangling bait was a female companion who wanted nothing to do with a nosy reporter.
But her friends, who work at the Safeway store on Columbia Road NW, were happy to fish and talk at the same time. They call themselves Dog Pound ’95. “We call ourselves “Pound ’95’ because we started it in the new year,” said Long. “We’re a positive group.”
“We go for the catfish and the rock. There’s nothing between you and the water, which represents calm. You feel where you are in the environment,” said Goodman, who had started fishing the spot only weeks before. He learned his angling on the Neuse River in his native North Carolina, but casts strictly pour le sport; a meat cutter, he does not eat seafood. Neither does his friend Long, who grew up in D.C. and has fished the Potomac from the river shallows to Point Lookout, Md.
While Goodman baited a hook, Long combed through a tangle of worms attempting in vain to escape his attention. Beside them lay a package of scallops. “I paid cash for them,” Long said, pointing to the scallops. “We also use shrimp, herring, kosher hot dogs. The best bait is dough, but it falls off the hook.”
When the conversation drifted into fishing stories and silence, we bade the Pound farewell. A few strokes brought us to the green-shingled hulk of the Washington Canoe Club, where the clock on the wall read 5:07, although the time was closer to 8.
Built in 1904 by a splinter faction of the Potomac Boat Club, the Canoe Club is a child’s fantasy of how to live on the water. Assisted by a Jack Russell terrier, a tall young man with a tattoo encircling one ankle was trying unsuccessfully to jump-start a Ford Econoline 250 van parked near the dock. We waited a few mute beats for the artificial thunder of a departing jet to fade, then he told me his name—Matt West—and his dog’s—Gertrude—and his story.
After prep school, the Navy, and work as an electrician, West hired on at the club in 1993 as coach and manager. He lives in Arlington but has crashing privileges at the boathouse. “I’d been hanging around the Canoe Club all my life. My father belonged in the early ’60s, and I joined in 1990,” he said. “I hated working with the tools I had to use as an electrician, and I like to fix boats. I’m not putting any money away, but I figure, if you’re doing what you love to do and you’re making enough to get by, you must be doing something right.”
We walked through the first floor, where racing canoes are stacked like very light and very expensive cordwood. The deal is simple: a $100 initiation fee and $225-a-year dues deliver a key to the gate, a boat rack, a locker. If you want to drive in on a weekday and bike to the office, you can park on the grounds, as many members do.
The interior is a museum of riverside miscellany. Trophies, photos, and other mementos of canoeing victories, including several at the Olympics, abound. Murals from the 1920s in one parlor suggest John W. Held on a serious bender. The weight room is a tribute to exercise equipment archaism. Upstairs, the ballroom floor tilts recognizably toward holes drilled to let out visiting waters; in 1936 and 1972, the Potomac reached knee-height there. The earlier flood is marked with a bronze plaque on the wall of the boardroom, which looks out onto the river.
“I stay up here sometimes. It’s beautiful,” West said. “It’s a mellow place. You have everything that goes with living in the city, but there is also nothing between the trees and the river. It’s a little oasis.”
There are debits, including constant sunburn and the scorn of crew coaches. “As far as they’re concerned, [canoeists] are the next level down the food chain,” said West. “But it’s no big deal; it’s all on the river. I used to get edgy when I’d see power boats or jet skis leaving wakes, but then I started looking around, and see the fishermen on the bank, and the rowers, and the canoes, and I thought, “Hey, they’re here. I’m here. Cut everybody some slack.’ ”
He walked us out. Our Grumman looked even sorrier after the sleekness of the canoes in the shed. The clock on the boathouse wall still read 5:07. West waved goodbye. Gertrude sniffed.
We stopped briefly at the nearby Potomac Boat Club. I buttonholed a trio of Spandexed scullers; just done with their workouts, they were too starved to talk. But what could they have told me that couldn’t be inferred from seeing that crisp, linear clubhouse, with the look and soul of a Nautilus machine? Succor was only strokes away. Jack’s Boats is a headquarters of waterfront funk, now marking half a century of renting canoes and rowboats in the shadow of Key Bridge.
Owner Jack Baxter has been working around the river since Depression days. “There was nothing to do when I got out of high school,” said the bearded old man who still resembles the cocky young dude his photo albums show. He wore a jaunty sport shirt on his solid but stiff 82-year-old frame. “I took any laboring job I could, even worked as an artist’s model for the Works Progress Administration. I applied to everything I could in the civil service. In 1935, I got on with the police force.”
Assigned to the old Seventh District in Georgetown, Baxter quickly became intimate with the waterfront. Then as now, a flatfoot’s salary didn’t carry much fat, so he hired on as a tender for a submarine diver with a slip on K Street. When the diver went on jobs like laying cable below the 14th Street Bridge, Baxter ran the lines, communicating by prearranged sets of jerks and tugs.
Next to the diver’s slip was a little outfit with a few small craft for rent at 75 cents a day. Baxter started on part-time with the boatman, first doing repairs, then building rowboats.
“There’s nothing to building a rowboat except knowing how the different types of wood swell once they get wet,” he said. “Pine is not going to swell the same as cypress, and you have to allow for that. Over the years, I built about 50 rowboats. There’s one left down there, number 60.”
After a few years, his blue uniform was making him itch, and he could see potential in the boatyard that its owner was far from realizing. In 1945, Jack Baxter cast his lot upon the waters and bought the place.
The waters rewarded him. Any spring or summer night that a band played at the Watergate, down by Memorial Bridge, he rented every boat. He enjoyed a few large seasons, but when National Airport’s plane traffic started following the river on landings and departures, the concerts withered and died, and so did his weekday custom. He hung on, sustained by Georgetown University students and overflow from Dempsey’s, a larger canoe-rental operation a few doors away. There’s no rest for a boatman; repairs and maintenance are a constant, especially after summer floods and winters like the ones that produced snapshots of the Baxters standing en famille on the ice midway across the Potomac.
“It wasn’t that rough,” Baxter said. We were shuffling through photos showing him as a station clerk at No. 7, him building boats, his fishing, his wives (“I’ve had two,” he cracked. “Ain’t that enough?”), his children gamboling at the water’s edge, nighttime parties where every face is lit by more than a flash bulb. He showed me a postcard of his favorite painting: Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
In the ’60s, during the push to build the Three Sisters Bridge, Baxter almost lost it all. The benighted idea was to funnel traffic from Virginia on a span over the islands, then send it onto a freeway rammed through the city’s heart. Among many battles raging that decade, this was one of the most locally fierce. While the demonstrations and lawsuits flared, the D.C. government purchasing office munched its way up K Street, condemning property upon property. Baxter’s was the last bite before the bridge plan collapsed, and the city took all but a morsel.
“See that tree over there?” Baxter asked, pointing to a thick-trunked specimen at the waterline. “I own that tree. The rest of this is government land. I have no lease. I’m not sure what I do have, but I understand that I have a guarantee that I can stay here until the Three Sisters Bridge comes in.”
He wouldn’t change anything, though. “I make a living,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it was a living, but to anyone who spent the Depression making a quarter a day standing on a ladder it’s a living. I liked it. I worked for pleasure, not for the money. I courted all my women in canoes.”
The Byrds’ version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was on the radio as we finished up. I was planning to come back later to rent a canoe, and told Baxter I’d see him if he was still around.
“Oh, don’t say a thing like that,” he said in mock horror. “I’ll last that long, anyway.”
Our next passage was butt-ugly: concrete breakwaters, some looking like low-rent lava flows punctuated by automobile undercarriages, sewer pipes, and other massive detritus. The stone slobber gave way to smoothness, but it was smoothness made garish by the graffiti of generations of crew teams: Whitman, AU, GU, Stuart,W-L. The land above the breakwater was full of rusting yellow D.C. salt and sand trucks.
It was a relief to come upon a round hole about seven feet across. The red-brick sewer was very old, and ran straight back for 200 feet into the landfill, almost to K Street, before turning left. I know this because I ordered my trusty crew, namely W, to steer into the opening. We had happened into the pipe at a fortunate hour. The Potomac tide is about three feet. The high-water mark was about at eye level; our paddles were striking bottom inches down. The blackness inside was creepy and exquisite. I would not have been surprised to meet Jean Valjean or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—though I couldn’t have seen much of them, since we had no light save Darrow’s flash. Myself, I would have pushed on to the cloacal head waters, but some people—people with a lot of expensive camera equipment—are so picky about where they canoe. So we backed out into the light and bore down on Washington Harbour.
The Harbour stands where there used to be an actual harbor—formed where Rock Creek emptied into the pre-Columbian Potomac—but it is not a harbor. It is a mixed-use complex, designed by architect Arthur Cotton Moore as a bold experiment in waterfront redevelopment. From perspectives other than the pedestrian or the waterborne—that is, from the Whitehurst Freeway, which is where I tend to be when I look at the place—Washington Harbour seems silly. Its myriad chimneys and towers and turrets and oriel windows and microwave dishes and security cameras give it sort of an M.C. Escher-meets-Nero look. But from foot or from the water, the joint takes on a different air, one of amiable concatenation, as if someone had shaken up a bag of Georgetown spare parts and glued them together. As I learned later, that was exactly what Moore had in mind (see sidebar).
At one end of the boardwalk, a security guard was leaning on a bollard. While the other guys locked the canoe, I asked the guard about working on the water. “Boring,” he said, declining to give his name. “Nothing much happens. You walk around. You watch people. It’s a nice place to be, I guess, but it’s all boring. I’ve been working days here for a year, and I come down, put in my eight hours, and go home.”
This display of unbridled effervescence made me happy to join W and Darrow for a fabulous styrofoam breakfast on the main concourse. We sat in the tide of tourists and commuters, not a few looking as if they could trade places with the J. Seward Johnson-sculpted figures that dot the Harbor. Then we went upstairs to talk with Charles Knauss; another environmental lawyer, he savors his lot as a latter-day waterfront worker.
“It’s terrific, although it can make you wonder why you’re inside working at 7o’clock in the morning when you could be out on the river like the Georgetown crew team,” Knauss said. He was in his balconied office, from which he can watch the river, sometimes through binoculars he keeps handy. “I’ve seen a bald eagle and ospreys. It’s nice to go outside, although on Friday afternoon it’s so popular you can hardly get out of the building. It’s a motivation to lead a more balanced life.”
Outside, the day was clearing; the sun had turned Key Bridge into a big cantaloupe-colored thing. Skirting Thompson’s Boathouse, we pointed the canoe’s bow up the mouth of Rock Creek, which could scarcely be more different now than it was when Europeans first came to the Potomac.
Three centuries ago, Rock Creek Bay was deep enough for oceangoing ships. It curved from today’s intersection of Wisconsin and K to Camp Hill, now the site of a Navy complex adjacent to the State Department. The main river channel was on the lee side of the island we call Roosevelt but which has had a parade of names: Barbadoes Island, Analostan Island, My Lord’s Island, Holmes Island, Mason’s Island. A steady procession of ships carried goods to and from warehouses lining Georgetown’s wharves. Vessels could anchor as far upcreek as the location of today’s P Street Bridge, then called Herring Hill for its bountiful fishing.
As soon as we entered the creek, we ran into a sandbar. Once around that, we negotiated an obstacle course of rotting logs in water startlingly more clear than the river it enters. We paddled—poled is more like it—as far as the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge, passing a fisherman crouched on the bank and someone’s quasipermanent campsite home ramshackled against the bridge abutment. Once the Anacostan Indians lived here, in a village called Togohae. Once tall ships anchored here. Once the only building for miles was a tobacco warehouse. With history pressing down, I asked W to bring us about and get us out of that used-up place.
From Rock Creek we endured a boring glide along the Rock Creek Parkway sea wall. Built in the 1920s and ’30s as part of a plan to protect the creek from commercial intrusion, the park and wall also protect the Potomac from human contact, and vice versa. Though it abuts the river for miles, the park seems cut off, as do the Watergate apartment complex and Kennedy Center. We moved through green shoals of hydrilla, the exotic water plant that has colonized the river for miles. Now and again a big fish slapped the surface. It was hard to reconcile this scene with what it once was: a churning urn of industrial funk laid down by tank farms, breweries, glass factories, and shipyards, all built atop a legendarily odorous expanse.
Like Georgetown, Foggy Bottom had to fall hard and far before being lifted up. Its wharves once jutted from 22nd and 23rd Streets, but in the mid-1800s, a fierce winter altered the river’s flow and replaced anchorage with mud flats. One summer during the Civil War, a member of Abraham Lincoln’s staff wrote, “I am alone in the White pest-house. The ghosts of twenty thousand drowned cats come in at night through the south windows.”
Peace came. The flats were landfilled, industry arose. Neighborhoods sprang up to house workers, albeit in rough-and-tumble fashion that got rougher as the 20th century aged, culminating in a classic industrial slum. About the only environmentally correct gesture of the era came in the late ’20s, when the Washington Gas Light Co., which had bought Mason’s Island as a site for a gasworks, instead sold it to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association, which renamed it yet again.
In the late ’40s, urban renewal arrived, spearheaded by construction of the State Department at 23rd and Virginia Avenue. The tank farms and breweries came down and the neighborhoods vanished, replaced by high-rises and freeways. The last scrap of unclaimed Foggy Bottom fronted on the river, and it was slated to be the site of a national cultural center. After Dallas, the Edward Darrell Stone-designed Kulturplatz was bound to be named for JFK.
Stone’s plan was not universally welcomed. On March 22, 1964, Washington Post architecture critic Wolf von Eckhardt took out after it. “The Kennedy Center site is poetic—trees and birds and a lovely view—now. But wait until the massive 130 foot high Watergate Town apartments, the maze of raised, sunken, and looping concrete highway ribbons, the Columbia Plaza project, and access ramps to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge are all completed,” von Eckhardt wrote. “Between this and the river, Stone will squeeze his marble monolith, a building two blocks long and some hundred feet above its terrace. It will be the largest building in Washington except the Pentagon and the Dulles Airport terminal. That surely is the end of the park and poetry. It will irretrievably block off the city west of the mall from its river front.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself as we navigated along in the square shadow. The sea wall was as bland and unmeasurable as an interstate highway divider. The KenCen loomed like a bilious air conditioner, with the Watergate beside it reprising the squat cylinders of the vanished gasworks.
We quickly escaped the Zone of Monumentality and got past the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge to find the real Watergate—the steps adjoining Memorial Bridge where in quieter times the bands sat on a barge and played concerts on summer evenings to a crowd on the steps and in a bobbing flotilla of canoes, Jack Baxter’s included. Empty, the water before them chock-full of debris, the steps were forlorn.
Nearby, Grant Yung, a 22-year-old student at the University of Maryland, pulled off the headphones to a portable CD player—Thompson Twins, he said—so we could talk.
“I’m looking for a job in international marketing,” he said. “I came down here to relax. The fish keep jumping, but this lure probably isn’t going to catch any; worms are better. I haven’t been down here in a year, but it’s a nice, scenic spot. I caught a three-foot gar here once.”
As Yung spread his arms in the classical pose, some boys and a man came up. They were the Oberlies, from Bluebell, Pa., in town for a soccer tournament and seeing the Potomac up close for the first time. Chaperon and father Joe Oberlie said the river compares favorably with the Schuylkill as it passes through Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. “The defined edge of the sea wall here makes it more enjoyable for people,” he said. “You can sit down and take a rest.”
We had not fixed the trip’s length, but like most journeys, the canoe expedition was ending of its own volition. We were bearing down on the opening to the Tidal Basin when a consensus emerged aboard the S.S. City Paper that even though the river wasn’t done, we were. A few yards from where we beached the Grumman, a fellow was working a pair of poles, one in each hand.
The two-fisted fisherman was Edward McMillan, a retired plumber. Using cut bait, he’d nailed one catfish. “This was the first place I went fishing when I came to D.C. from Carolina in ’62,” he said. “I didn’t know how to fish then. I don’t know how to fish now. I throw the pole out, hope to catch something. Biggest fish I ever caught here was a carp four or five feet long. Took me 35 or 50 minutes to land him. When I got that fish out of the water, it looked like a funeral around me.”
I asked what a guy did with a carp almost as long as he was tall.
“Cut him up and cook him and eat him,” McMillan said. He raised a rod and flung a hunk of bait at the river, and something violent occurred at the end of the line. Years dropped off him as he leaned into the job of landing his prey—a fat, sassy catfish. Snipping the hook with wire cutters and slipping the fish free, he tossed it to die in the company of its predecessor. McMillan grinned.
“Now I’ll be able to eat when I get home,” he said.
An African-American standing at riverside had scant reason to smile when the Potomac was part of the slaving route to New Orleans. In antebellum days, slave traders Franklin & Armfield had docks and coffles in both D.C. and Alexandria. In 1833, the firm bought and shipped 1,000 slaves aboard the ships Tribune and Uncas, each able to hold 180 pieces of human cargo. (Once, though, the river served temporarily as a spur line of the Underground Railroad. On April 15, 1848, abolitionist Daniel Drayton brought the schooner Pearl to D.C. to liberate a slave couple about to be separated by their owners. Unloading 20 cords of firewood at Georgetown, Drayton then sailed to the White House wharf. There, Drayton found not two would-be escapees but a crowd. When he cast off, the Pearl was filled to the gunwales with runaway slaves—76 in all, “the best cooks and laundresses in the District,” according to one account. A steam-powered posse caught the overloaded vessel at Point Lookout. When the vigilantes hauled the abolitionist back to D.C., Drayton had to face a mob howling for his neck. Convicted, he was fined $10,600 and spent four years in the slammer before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.)
To cruise the rest of the D.C./Potomac interface, I had to eschew the canoe. The Southwest waterfront is on the city side of Washington Channel, an inlet of the river created by dredging in the late 1800s and now maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. About 400 yards wide and 20 to 25 feet deep sea wall to sea wall, the channel is another survivor of urban renewal. Its song dates more to the days of steam than sail, but the refrain is essentially the same. A 19th-century photograph shows what could be any port: wharves poking into water, three-masters at anchor—all the panoply of the urban littoral zone.
Before the railroads came, the channel briefly was Washington’s link to the Atlantic. In 1859, steamer service began between the Southwest waterfront and New York City, with several companies competing for customers. But by 1870 the iron horse had sunk the passenger steamboat trade, except for local excursions. Craft like the Mary Washington, a flat-bottomed sidewheeler drawing only 20 inches of water, tootled between D.C. and Mount Vernon, Marshall Hall amusement park, and other points of touristic interest. A round trip to and from Mount Vernon cost $1.50.
For many reasons, the neighborhood radiating away from the channel became a pernicious slum. In the late ’20s and ’30s, the channel itself developed into a rickety, saprophytic colony of marinas, boatyards, beer joints, and crab houses. However, there also were legitimate restaurants like Hogate’s, a wholesale produce market, and the Washington Yacht Club, as well as the Wilson Line docks.
Even then, the channel was receiving government attention. In the late ’30s, avid yachtsman Franklin Delano Roosevelt prodded the Works Progress Administration to construct the Washington Marina, which still stands where a ramp leading to the Southwest Freeway peels away from Maine Avenue SW.
When the marina was built, it had nothing above it but sky. Twenty years later, when the slums of Southwest were in city planners’ gun sights, the waterfront was demolished and rebuilt. Now, bands of elevated highway have all but engulfed the sturdy little brick building.
Robert Stickell has seen the whole arc. His father, Clarence M. Stickell, was a Baltimore boat broker hired to organize the marina in 1951. Robert came aboard in 1953, at age 25. “It’s one of the occupations you get involved in and find you love it,” he said. “It’s not the money. People see boats and think there’s a lot of money involved, but there isn’t.”
Until the Southwest redevelopment juggernaut swept into overdrive in the late ’50s, the marina displayed its wares and leased space to clients across a couple of blocks’ worth of docks; half of that fell to the bulldozers. “With redevelopment we had to change our focus,” said Stickell. We were sitting in his upstairs office, where one window faces out onto the marina’s remaining 45 slips and another looks down on the showroom and ship’s chandlery that has become the company’s mainstay. The Stickells run the only marine supply house left in D.C.
“Today, big boats are 25 and 35 and 40 feet long; our slips were designed for boats 70 and 80 feet long. The luxury excise tax drove out most of the larger boat builders,” said Stickell. “And we used to handle the O’Day sailboat, which did well during the fuel crisis but went down after people stopped worrying about gas. Sailing is a wonderful activity, but you have to work at it. A lot of people don’t want to come home from recreational boating feeling tired.”
Downstairs, the stock is standard gear like snap shackles and toggles, arcane supplies like Barge Cement, and basic equipment like motors and generators, along with a couple of lines of smaller craft—Boston Whalers and Avon inflatables. A cute little Avon dinghy runs $1,555 on sale, but a top-of-the-line Whaler, loaded, could set you back $50K.
The marina manager, who drives to work from his home south of Alexandria, doesn’t own a boat. “Most of the people in the industry really don’t have time to enjoy boats of their own,” he said. “I haven’t had a Saturday or Sunday off in a good many months.”
He showed me a 1938 photo of the marina building under construction: no bridges, no freeways, no trees—just a flat, open space with the light bouncing fiercely off the water. Outside, a bit of that bounce remained, but it was under siege by lifts being used to paint the freeway understructure. Half the slips in the old marina were occupied, the boats behind chain-link and triple strands of barbed wire like prisoners of war. Just inside the fence was a reminder of a gentler time: the cast-iron fence that used to be the only barrier to access.
From Washington Marina, it’s a skip along Maine Avenue to the mysteries of the fish market, where boats that never leave the dock each morning display seafood exotic and ordinary. The scene is tacky and garish and, well, very waterfront.
Here, workers continuously restock stalls where—mirabile dictu!—a given species carries the same price as it does at the competitor’s! I spent some time inquiring of the brotherhood of the fishmongers about their affairs, but when I wasn’t getting the arctic brush-off I was getting the amiable stiff-arm. It might be a giant price-fixing conspiracy or it might be the stress of keeping the cash that flows in from flowing out through the wrong pockets; when I stepped into one office to ask if the manager had a few minutes to talk about the seafood bidnis, he could barely take his eyes off the security cameras trained on his employees to stare me down and mutter, “Nope.”
The only fish-market entrepreneur to give me the time of day was Ben Edwards, owner and operator of Virgo Fish Cleaning, which does what its name suggests: clean fish bought from Captain White’s Seafood City, Morgan’s, Custis & Brown, and the others. Above the counter, a faded sign announces, “Fish Cleaner Needed Experienced Only See Clarence.” But after you see Clarence, you can bet you’re going to be seeing Ben Edwards, who is quick to report that the fish cleaning business is no bed of oysters. Since January, Virgo has gone through 75—count ’em, 75—would-be fish cleaners, and the proprietor is peeved.
“I meet a homeless man who says he needs something to do, and I’m willing to bring him in,” said Edwards, a wiry man in a Myrtle Beach gimme cap, crisp shirt, and pressed dungarees. “But you can’t have people looking raggedy. I say to the other guys, “Get him a haircut and a shave, put some clothes on him.’ Later, I ask about the new man, they say, “What new man?’ It’s hard. A man could make $200 or $300 a week, but the minority doesn’t want to work. It’s a rat life. You can’t establish anything here. I have soda machines, I come down one morning and the machine has not just been broken into, the machine is GONE.”
Even when a new hire does pan out, Edwards watches him like a human security camera. “Someone buys a salmon this big,” he said, holding up both hands. “They paid $10 a pound, that’s a $70 fish. It’s common sense that you do not want to destroy that fish, or that customer will not be back. People do not use their common sense. It’s a constant battle. They leave the water on, they leave the lights on. My water bill can be $8,000 or $9,000 a month; electricity can be $700. It’s a dog-eat-dog life. I keep doing it because at this age I can think about cashing in my Social Security, so why should I go looking for something else and have to race with the young traffic and get run over? I’m going to retire. I might go fishing.”
If he does, it will be a first. “I’m not a fisherman, but I like to be around fish,” Edwards said. “Fish excite me. The first time I cleaned fish was at Reddiford Twins at 4th and I. They were a distributor that prepared seafood for restaurants. In 1968, when I was working as produce manager, a friend of mine told me about this place, and I started on part-time. There was no system, no schedule. It wasn’t long before I put in a system and a schedule.”
When a hernia operation sidelined him from Grand Union, he spent his recuperation hanging around the fish-cleaning operation. The owner’s relaxed approach to management left a power vacuum—and Ben Edwards, like nature, abhors a vacuum. “I just moved in on him,” he said. “I just took over. When it came to a vote, I was around and he wasn’t.” In 1970, he resigned his grocery store commission to devote himself to icthyosection.
The minimum charge for the Virgo treatment is 50 cents, according to an imposing chart with columns of fees keyed to weight. Some people think Ben Edwards is running a charity. “They don’t want to pay at all,” he said. “Or they come in here and put down 75 cents or $2, and think I’m going to go for that. I’m not. But if you come in here with a $75 salmon and you want steaks for broiling and steaks for baking and some slices for freezing, I’m going to give you what you want.”
Besides being a cleaner of fish, Edwards is a fisher of men. Since 1987, he has preached at New Hope Baptist Church near his home in Wayson’s Corner, Md. “I gave my first sermon on March 3, 1980,” he said. “It was on the theme, “There is nowhere to turn around.’ It was very fitting, because when the pastor was escorting me to the pulpit, what did I see but my brothers from the Free and Accepted Masons. I was flanked by black suits. I wanted to stop, I wanted to weep. But there was nowhere to turn around.”
Walk a bit farther, and your fish will not only be cleaned, but sautéed, broiled, poached, or baked. But restaurant row along the waterfront—Le Rivage, Phillips Flagship, Hogate’s, H.I. Ribster, 700 Water Street, the Channel Inn, Pier Seven—lacks a certain something. It’s not that there’s anything outright wrong. The food is swell and so is the view, but the look is not waterfront. Maybe it will be in 50 or 75 years, after some moss has grown on these concrete boxes and out of necessity or curiosity the owners have fiddled with the superstructure, added some outdoor decking or phony palm trees, a little spritz of blinky lights. Maybe then the Southwest waterfront restaurants will say, “waterfront.” Right now they say “suburban light industry.”
“They should make this place more like the waterfronts in Los Angeles and Miami,” said Ronnie Ruano. Having bicycled from Glen Echo to Georgetown, he and two pals were hungry, and so kept wheeling. When I met them, they were about to scarf shrimp and oysters and fried fish at cable spools on the end of the market dock.
“They should have some tables here,” said Ruano, a Salvadoran who lives in Wheaton. “And beer. We’re on bikes, so we don’t want to get loaded; we just want it for the flavor, to enhance the taste of the seafood.”
Fish market aside, the truest life of the Southwest waterfront is among the live-aboards of the Gangplank Marina, where about 125 of 350 slips shelter boats that are homes. Run by Westrec, which operates 45 marinas in the U.S. and Europe, the Gangplank charges $1 per foot of boat overnight. Annual docking fees are $100 per foot, which translates into $3,000 for a 30-foot boat—considering that a marginally habitable houseboat costs $5,000, not bad for a posh address where the neighbors include actors Kelly McGillis and Al Freeman, along with the occasional politician.
“It’s a unique situation,” said dock master Marty Meehan, who lives aboard a 46-foot Chris Craft. “You can have starving students living next to members of Congress.”
Meehan, who started managing the marina four years ago after a degreeless escape from law school, likened his job to being resident manager of an apartment complex. He directs a staff of 20, leases slips, rents pleasure boats, responds to emergency calls. “Living aboard means constant maintenance,” he said. “You’re always adjusting or replacing something. And of course a boat never sinks between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. You learn a lot of things the hard way. You have to be able to rely on your neighbor, and your neighbor has to be able to rely on you.”
Marina resident Norah Davis echoed Meehan’s sentiments. She’s lived aboard since last autumn, when she bought a 34-foot sailboat she christened Richmond Studio, the name of her editorial contracting company.
A St. Louis, Mo., native, Davis grew up with Huck Finn dreams, and after getting most of a Ph.D. in philosophy and teaching at several colleges, she actually did light out for the territories. In 1979, she traveled 2,200 miles up and down the Mississippi by canoe, motorboat, barge, and freighter while researching The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle, published in 1982 by the Sierra Club. Later, she and husband Richard Davis built the first solar house north of Boston, prompting her to write a book about solar homes.
After Richard died in 1982, Norah cycled through a series of editing jobs. After moving to Washington to work on a magazine, she went free-lance. For several years, she wrote and edited out of a condo near Dupont Circle, but last fall, while wandering around the waterfront, she asked what a houseboat would cost.
“From the moment I heard you could get a decent houseboat for $15,000 to $20,000, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be living on the water,” she said. She put the condo on the market the next day; when it sold, Davis consulted a boat broker. After visiting a few marinas, she decided she didn’t want a houseboat after all. In September 1994, she bought a 34-foot Scanmar sailboat that she had moved to the Gangplank Marina. To outfit the 300-square-foot interior for a home office, Davis put a computer work station where the main cabin’s table and banquette had been. She keeps current projects on board and stores the surplus a few blocks away, making transfers a couple times a month.
Richmond Studio has all the amenities except a shower, so Davis uses the marina’s. “But it hasn’t been a hassle,” she said. “The facilities are clean and well kept up. The biggest inconvenience is laundry. It’s like camping out all the time.”
Ever the philosopher, Davis has been looking for the negative aspect of her decision, but hasn’t found it. “I’ll never be alandlubber again,” she said. “It’s a way to be close to nature in the middle of the city. You are within sight of the Washington Monument, yet you are very conscious of the weather—the wind, the sunrise, the sunset, the blue heron that lands on the dock, the ducks that show up for handouts. We have night herons, cormorants, American coots. Clients love to come down to the boat. I’ve had people say, “I’ll give you the contract if I can come to the boat for meetings.’ The marina is like a small town, only quieter. You don’t hear the sirens; when I lived at Dupont Circle, I heard them all the time. The only time it’s noisy is when the helicopters come over.”
My final brush with the Southwest waterfront was a trip on one of the Spirit Marine cruise ships that occupy the last yards of private dock. The occasion was that standard Washington event, the intersection of the personal and the professional—a publisher’s 75th birthday and his company’s 50th anniversary. I came as a friend and guest, but in my pocket I had my notebook.
A gulleywasher was lashing the city. The Potomac Spirit, a modern descendant of those old chuggers, towered over the pier building as the crowd boarded. I asked our skipper, Capt. Patrick Leahy, if we could talk. Sure, he said. As the 89-ton, 147-foot ship began its trip by steering into the lipstick sunset that had emerged after the rain, Capt. Leahy explained how he had wound up in command of the vessel.
“When I came to D.C., I didn’t think of it as a waterfront city,” he said as he kept a light hold on the stainless steel wheel. “I grew up on Cape Cod. I’ve been on sailboats since I was three. After high school, I enrolled at the University of Maryland to study criminal justice and government and politics. I knew about the Spirit ships—the company has 14 vessels in nine cities—but I didn’t know about this place until I took a part-time job with the company during school.”
He started as a deckhand and worked his way up. After college, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, then came back to Spirit as a full-timer. The captain, who is 25, lacks a boat of his own, preferring instead to pay off his student loans. I left him in the cabin and returned to the party.
While we ate and drank and told stories on our friend, the Spirit’s twin 750-horsepower diesels pushed us down the river and underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. At the 10-mile mark, we turned around, and I climbed to the upper deck to see how the Washington waterfront greets the night:barely. On sheer candlepower, you’d think Alexandria was the nation’s capital. The Masonic Temple lit up the sky, and National Airport beamed like the parking lot of a shopping mall, far flashier than anything on the D.C. shore.
But as we neared the mouth of the Anacostia, the moon flared on the Palladian form of the War College. The Capitol dome, the Monument, even the gray slabs of the National Cathedral far upriver and away from the shore—the city revealed itself from the water with a drama I’d never seen. Around the deck, people stood watching the show, and when we slid into place at the pier, I made my way down without saying much to anybody. I wanted to pay close attention to what it felt like to stand again on the Washington waterfront. It felt good.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.