Washingtoniana: What’s With the Fish Market?

In this week’s Washingtoniana—our Thursday feature where answer your questions about Washington—we get the lowdown on the Maine Avenue Fish Market in Southwest DC.

By: Emily Leaman

Photo by Flickr user Bethany L. King 

Stephanie Caccomo asks: “What is the story behind the fish market barges on the Southwest waterfront? I think I’ve heard that they have been around for a while, but I’d love more info on their history.”

To get the facts on the fish market, we hunkered down with a stack of books and called in favors to two local historians. Read on to find out what we uncovered.

Two books proved helpful in our hunt: Images of America: Southwest Washington, DC by Paul K. Williams and Washington on Foot, a tourist’s walking guide edited by John J. Protopappas and Alvin R. McNeal. We also chatted with Cultural Tourism DC’s in-house historian, Jane Freundel Levey, and Washington Walks founder Carolyn Crouch.

The Maine Avenue Fish Market—also called the Fish Wharf—has been in continuous use in one form or another since the early 1800s. Beginning in 1815 and lasting well into the 1900s, steamboats toting people up and down the Potomac made stops at what is now the fish market near 1100 Maine Avenue, Southwest. Though the waterfront never became the bustling port people had hoped for—mainly because tidal fluctuations made the stretch of river passable only for small boats—merchants began to take advantage of its dependable foot traffic. Following the Civil War, local fishermen and farmers set up makeshift shops and booths and began selling fresh local seafood and produce from farms in Maryland and Virginia.

By the early 1900s, the area had become a popular shopping destination for Washingtonians from all over the city. In 1916, the city began construction on a new indoor market space that would “replace what was then considered an unsanitary row of individual fish markets,” according to Williams. It was designed by architect Snowden Ashford and located on Maine Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. When it opened for business in 1918, the Municipal Fish Market, as it was dubbed, included 24 merchant stalls and office space for the Department of Weights, Measures, and Markets.

Despite the burgeoning market, the surrounding neighborhood in Southwest deteriorated in the decades after the Civil War, attracting the poorest residents of the city and becoming a shantytown of tenement housing. Worried that Southwest was becoming an eyesore—and embarrassed that a slum neighborhood had cropped up so close to the Capitol—city planners in the 1960s and ’70s set out to rebuild the area to attract new residents. Wide roads were created, open spaces added, townhouses and a promenade built. But in the process, thousands of low-income residents were displaced and many neighborhood landmarks, including the Municipal Fish Market, were razed.

Crouch says developers had hoped to push the fish market out of the neighborhood entirely, but the vendors who’d leased space in the Municipal Fish Market refused to go away. And they found a loophole—their lease agreements said they were entitled to space in the market for 99 years. So instead of eradicating the market altogether, the developers were forced to implement plan B: They pushed the market as far west of the waterfront as they could, which happened to be almost directly underneath the I-395 overpass. The new outdoor market was built as a cluster of floating barges moored to a concrete pier.

So Stephanie, that’s how the Maine Avenue Fish Market got to its current location. Today, it’s home to several vendors who sell fish, oysters, clams, crabs, produce, and more. Some of the most popular items: Maryland blue and soft-shell crabs from the Chesapeake.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send an e-mail to eleaman@washingtonian.com. We’ll try to answer your question in an upcoming column.

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