Travel

Here Comes the Neighborhood D.C.: Confined to Barracks

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • August, 2004

by Karen Feld

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A John Philip Sousa march wafts across Eighth Street SE and into Plaid, a trendy women’s fashion boutique. Inside, shopkeeper Sarah Chellgren smiles, as if envisioning the dresses dancing on their hangers. It’s been a long time since anyone danced in Barracks Row. But that’s starting to change.

“There’s a definite sense of community and shared sense of responsibility,” says Chellgren, who opened her store last fall.

Chellgren speaks of the historic Eighth Street between Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street SE that was once Washington’s main commercial thoroughfare. Named for the Marine Corps barracks that line the street, Barracks Row is rich in history. The Commandant’s House at the north end, built nearly 200 years ago, is the second-oldest public building in contrinuous use in the nation’s capital (following only the White House). And the barracks themselves have housed the Marine Band since 1801. But that legacy wasn’t strong enough to stave off the neighborhood’s plunge into a decades-long decline.

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ALL IN A ROW

Alvear Studio: 705 Eighth Street SE, 202-546-8434, www.alvearstudio.com

Attitude Exact Gallery: 739 Eighth Street SE, 202-546-7186

Banana Café and Piano Bar: 500 Eighth Street SE, 202-543-5906

Barracks Row Main Street: 733 1/2 A Eighth Street SE, 202-544-3188, www.barracksrow.org

Finn Mac Cool’s: 713 Eighth Street SE, 202-547-7100

Marty’s: 527 Eighth Street SE, 202-546-4952

Plaid: 715 Eighth Street SE, 202-675-6900, www.plaidstore.com

Starfish Café: 539 Eighth Street SE, 202-546-5006, www.starfishcafedc.com

Starbucks: 401 Eighth Street SE, 202-544-7913

The Evening Parade is a Friday evening ceremony and concert by the U.S. Marine Band. This patriotic tradition is free every Friday at 8:45 p.m.
through 8/20. Reservations are required: Call 202-433-4073, register online at www.mbw.usmc.mil or write to Protocol Officer, Marine Barracks, Eighth and “I” streets SE, Washington, DC 20390-5000

Enter Barracks Row Main Street. Bill Mc Leod, executive director of this non-profit organization, had been watching the area’s slow turn for about five years. With funding from ReStore DC, Fannie Mae Foundation and Washington Gas, Barracks Row Main Street began restoring Eighth Street as a vibrant commercial link, connecting Capitol Hill with the Anacostia Waterfront. “Each business is a catalyst to attract new businesses,” Mc Leod says of the revitalization. One of a dozen ReStore D.C. Main Streets, as well as a National Trust Main Street, Barracks Row now boasts nearly 20 retail shops and about two dozen restaurants and bars, including a Starbucks. There are also locally owned spots like the Banana Café & Piano Bar, a friendly neighborhood café serving up Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican food and nightly piano music; the Starfish Café, which specializes in Caribbean Creole dishes and seafood; and, from the other side of the pond, Finn Mac Cool’s, an Irish pub, whose live Irish music draws a mix of Marines and Capitol Hill professionals.

“The area has improved greatly over the last couple years, and we’re proud to play a role in that,” says Scott Spaulding, general manager of Marty’s, a bar/restaurant with an outdoor patio. These days, Spaulding pours beer for his new lunchtime regulars–Hill staffers, shoppers, tourists.

Paul Williams of Attitude Exact Gallery agrees. “It’s the new Georgetown,” he says. Attitude Exact is an Afrocentric gallery, specializing in custom framing and conservation of masks and objects of all kinds.

And “new” seems to be the operative word, as most merchants have opened shop in renovated buildings within the past year. But not everyone waited. Francisco Pliege and Christopher Alvear were considered pioneers when they opened their Alvear Studio in 2000. Now, business at this shop–which offers funky and unique designs and Mexican furniture and art–is booming. “We’re seeing tremendous foot traffic,” says Alvear. “It’s almost there.”

Barracks Row’s rejuvenation continues with McLeod’s efforts to attract new business and tourism. With a variety of entertainment , festivals, and tours hitting the area, he foresees a livelier social and family atmosphere: “I’d like to see people … 24/7,” he says. His vision is turning into reality.

-KAREN FELD

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