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Past, Present & Future: The Evolution of Washington DC's Southwest Waterfront

Southwest Waterfront skyline

From Native Americans, European Settlers, and now, the new Wharf development, this quadrant of Washington, DC has one constant—it’s always changing.

Located at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, the land has been shaped and reshaped by visionaries who profited from the Southwest Waterfront’s abundant natural resources. Today, visitors have much to see and do in this unique neighborhood a few blocks from the National Mall.

The Past

Thousands of years ago, the earliest inhabitants of Washington, DC’s Southwest Waterfront were Native Americans who fished, hunted and thrived on the land. The Indians in this region spoke the Algonquian language and were organized into chiefdoms. Native Americans remained in the area even as it was developed into the Federal City in the late 1700s. The city's first military installation, Fort Lesley McNair, an army base, was built in 1794 to defend the nation’s capital. The base remains today on 21 acres known as Greenleaf Point. From 1893 until 1902, Dr. Walter Reed studied yellow fever and other infectious diseases here.

Maine Avenue Fish Market at the Southwest Waterfront - The Wharf - Washington, DC

In the late 1700s, the neighborhood became a busy industrial shipyard with storage houses and outdoor markets. Fishermen sold catch directly off their boats, until 1801, when a market was established (now called the Maine Avenue Fish Market). It remains the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the nation. The market’s lunch room building, where fishmongers and shoppers eat their freshly prepared seafood, was built in 1916, while the oyster shucking shed was constructed in the mid-1940s.

This mostly working class waterfront neighborhood grew slowly over the decades. By the mid-19th century, the area consisted of residential properties and federal buildings, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian museums. Scottish, Irish, German and Eastern European immigrants settled here, and the bustling waterfront community sheltered escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

After the Civil War, free blacks moved in, along with Washington’s own U.S. Colored Troops. By the turn of the century, 4 ½  Street acted as a dividing line between African Americans living to the east, and immigrant communities to the west. They all came together to patronize the shops on 4 ½ Street SW. Two famous entertainers, Al Jolson and Marvin Gaye, lived here as children.

St. Dominic's interior chapel

Three houses of worship supported these communities – St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, Temple Beth Israel and Friendship Baptist Church. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Southwest Waterfront population had grown to 35,000 and began to suffer from overcrowding. The conditions inspired Federal and District officials to implement an “Urban Renewal” plan, and during the late 1950s, blocks of townhouses, freestanding homes and alley dwellings were razed, replacing them with more modern high rises. After that, government workers and well known politicos like Hubert Humphrey and Sandra Day O’Connor moved into the neighborhood.

The Maine Avenue Fish Market, Thomas Law House, Wheat Row, Friendship Church and St. Dominic’s Church were the only landmarks that survived the demolition. St. Dominic’s has provided spiritual comfort to many prominent Washingtonians, including President Lyndon Johnson, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, actress Helen Hayes and baseball player, Walter Johnson. The new residential buildings were hailed as an improvement, but they eliminated the street level commerce found in most thriving urban neighborhoods.

In 1961, pioneers of the modern theater movement built a nonprofit theater in the neighborhood. Arena Stage—a theater-in-the-round style venue featured American plays and performances. Arena was designed by Harry Weese, the same architect who designed the DC Metro system. In 1972, the Titanic Memorial, a statue paid for by female survivors, was moved to the Washington Channel riverfront.

The Present

The Southwest Waterfront is a community in transition. Despite the neighborhood’s close proximity to the National Mall, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and many other top attractions in the District, it hasn’t been on many visitors’ must-visit lists yet. But with the rapid changes taking place, expect to see more tourists and residents calling this area DC’s newest hot spot. That’s because of The Wharf, a $2 billion, transformative redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront stretching across 50 acres of water and 24 acres of land along the Potomac River.

Odyssey Cruise on the Potomac River in Washington, DC

During construction, The Wharf hosts community events like the Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival, Running of the Chihuahuas, free summer concerts, Parade of Lighted Boats with 50 decorated boats, exercise and yoga classes and a myriad of other seasonal activities. The first phase of The Wharf is set to open in October 2017.

Entertainment Cruises offers sightseeing boat tours daily – both the Odyssey or Spirit of Washington – viewing the memorials and monuments from the perspective of the water. Cantina Marina is the District’s only dock bar with waterfront dining.

East Potomac Park, one of DC’s many parks, hosts an 18-hole golf course, the East Potomac Aquatic Center and the East Potomac Tennis Center, making it a recreational haven in the urban landscape.

Arena Stage’s stunning renovation has enhanced its place as the cultural anchor of the neighborhood. It remains a vibrant home for showcasing stories about the American experience, both past and present. The Mead Center at Arena Stage has three stages and a cafe within the complex.

Another site of note is Benjamin Banneker Park Circle, near L’Enfant Plaza. The circle was built upon an overlook where the African American surveyor, also a self-taught astronomer and mathematician, made calculations to determine Washington, DC’s future boundaries.

The historic Maine Avenue Fish Market is still the center of waterfront commerce in the nation’s capital, as it has been since before the Civil War. Today, the market is surrounded by construction cranes, as it continues to welcome locals and visitors who wish to sample fresh seafood from the Mid-Atlantic waters, such as blue crabs, oysters and rockfish. Check out the market vendors, like Captain White’s, for made-to-order crabcakes, oyster po’ boys and fish tacos.

The Future

The Torch at The Wharf on the Southwest Waterfront - Dining and Shopping Destination in Washington, DC

The Wharf redevelopment will be unveiled in two phases. Phase I opened in October of 2017, transforming The Wharf into an exciting urban waterfront environment. There will be waterfront parks, promenades, piers and docks available for use by the public. Phase I includes three hotels – Canopy by Hilton, Hyatt House and the luxury InterContinental Hotel. The Anthem, a 6,000-person capacity concert hall and event meeting venue which will attract thousands of visitors monthly.

The Wharf will also have ground-floor shops and restaurants. Most of the eateries will possess deep roots in DC’s growing restaurant scene. Expect to more than 20 restaurants, including Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Dolcezza, Taylor Gourmet and Hank’s Oyster Bar. Well known chefs like Mike Isabella plan to debut new concept restaurants here as well. The Fish Market will remain an integral partner in the community, especially as it offers new amenities and an enhanced environment for dining and shopping.

The Wharf will encompass more than 10 acres of public parks and four new public piers, reconnecting residents to their waterfront with panoramic views. There will be a free kayak and paddleboard launch, sailing center, ferry to East Potomac Park and water taxi service to other regional waterfront areas, such as sightseeing cruises. The Wharf is designed to be pedestrian friendly, and include a dedicated bike path. When complete, the transformation of the Southwest Waterfront will showcase a sparkling blend of cultural, recreational, retail and dining experiences for both residents and visitors to enjoy.

As the Southwest Waterfront development, The Wharf, grows and changes, it’s worth investigating what’s happening in the neighborhood now. Stop at the Maine Avenue Fish Market for local seafood, catch a show at Arena Stage before the sun sets over the Washington Channel. Check out these and more things to do right now in the Southwest Waterfront.

Now that you have read up on the Southwest Waterfront, check out other DC neighborhoods.