Amid changes, some things at D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront and Seafood Market remain the same
By Joseph Liu
Sung Kim sits, poring over over his book in his dimly lit office. Printed across the pages are diagrams showing the energy flow of the human body, an ancient belief that is used in diagnosing ailments. An old computer hums loudly next to him and the green LED light flickers erratically. Even with the window open, the brightest source of light is the computer monitor.
The swaying is unnoticeable from the inside, but his office is situated on the barge in the water. Depending on the water level, market workers will line the dock with wooden steps so that customers can get a better look at what they are selling. Like the constant flowing ocean, the historic Washington D.C. Southwest Seafood Market has changed, and only the steadfast can truly understand what kind of place it is.
“I feel like I’ve been living in this place for my whole life,” Kim says. “But I’ve only been here for six years.”
Just south of the Tidal Basin and a few blocks from the Jefferson Memorial, the historic Southwest waterfront has been a destination for those seeking fresh seafood for centuries. Located at the intersections of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, the waterfront has attracted settlers since before the United States was a country.
According to the Southwest D.C. Web site, Pierre L’Enfant, the surveyor and planner for D.C., called the area “a magnificent entranceway.”
In 1918, the Municipal Fish Market provided space for 24 merchant stalls and an office for the Department of Weights, Measures and Markets. These stalls replaced the sailors that would dock at the pier and sell their goods right off the boats.
Paul K. Williams writes in his book, “Images of America: Southwest Washington, D.C.,” that as Washington became more populated, the southwest area of the city started attracting the poorest residents. Worried that the area would become a slum, urban planning concepts molded the area into an innovative apartment and cooperative living community.
Photographs and news clippings from that era show a much bigger Seafood Market than is there now. In 1958, Garnet W. Jex, a graphic arts and painter, chronicled the change in Southwest D.C. in slide presentation titled, “The Bulldozer and the Rose.” This presentation featured pictures of the old Southwest waterfront with boats lining the docks and signs boasting, “Jumbo Hard Crabs”
Lida Churchville, Historian for the Southwest D.C. Neighborhood Assembly and librarian at the D.C. Historical Society, believes that some culture was destroyed during the 1950s renovation.
“A lot of people left and never came back. … There was a whole Jewish community… that’s never come back,” she said.
A lot of buildings, including churches and synagogues, were destroyed, but she does understand why.
“Some of the buildings that were torn down, and today we would love to have back, were probably ugly to the people back then,” she said.
Currently, four businesses occupy the Seafood Market. Three out of the four are family-owned and have been there for generations. The fourth business is owned by a Sung Kim, a Korean immigrant who, following in the footsteps of immigrants before him, has settled in the waterfront to make a living.
He speaks slowly and thoughtfully. Lazy th’s and r’s, roll off his tongue. His face is almost child-like, but his skin is lightly traced with wrinkles.
His eyes give off a tiredness that reflects his life. Short and stocky, his body looks as if it holds power. His hands, kept mostly in his pockets, are thick and callused with work.
“1980 I came [to America],” he says as he thinks back on how he came to own Pruitt’s Seafood.
His dream was to own a business in America, someplace he could call his own. As many immigrants have, he opened a drycleaning shop. While working, he said, he injured his back and could not continue to do manual labor.
He decided to change careers and bought a seafood restaurant in Alexandria. Because of this restaurant, he made many trips to the fish market. Every time he came, the market was packed and busy.
“It was a once in a lifetime,” Kim said about his purchase of the market.
With only three other shops in the area, the location is amazing, he said.
Later he discovered that he might have been too optimistic.
Seafood is a seasonal good, with different fish and crabs coming and going. Prices change with the season and there is never a guarantee that you will have goods to sell.
“That’s why the seafood business is very hard,” he said. “Sometimes 40 dollars for a bushel, sometimes 120 dollars.” Not only do the costs of a bushel of crabs change, but the size of the crabs change as well.
You can open up a bushel and it will only be full 50 percent full, he said.
“This is America, can you believe it? When you pay the top price, the quality is the bottom,” he said.
He does have hope for the future though. As tourist season arrives and the weather clears up, he hopes that business will pick up as well. News of renovations to the waterfront also lifts his spirits.
After the urban renewal of the 1950s, the waterfront has changed very little. Concrete hotels that bear the marks of time are scattered next to the fish market. Restaurants with solid but worn porches lie all the way up to the water’s edge.
In 2010, a new renovation project is scheduled to begin. Malls, apartments, parks, open spaces, upscale stores will all be part of this project. Most importantly, according to the Southwest D.C. Waterfront Web site, this project will be about the water.
“The redevelopment will transform the marina and channel area to optimize both water traffic and views,” it announces.
Paul Harrison, manager at Jessie Taylor Seafood, is skeptical about the new renovations planned for the Southwest.
“It’s been talk of this for at least 25 years, but I’ve not see anything yet, so it makes you wonder,” he said.
Even with the hope of renovation to renew businesses in this area, Kim still said he faces many problems.
Because all the businesses around him have been owned by the same family for many generations, they already know how to run a business.
“I had to do it by myself. I’ve lost lots of money,” he said.
After a pause, he smiled and said, “But I’m still alive.”