A Floating Landmark – The Main Avenue Fish Market
Tucked between the I-395 underpass and the yacht basin along the Washington Channel, The Maine Avenue Fish Market—also lovingly referred to by regulars as The Fish Market, The Fish Wharf and The Wharf—exists as a locally fueled public space in the midst of pedestrian-scarce new development along the waterfront. Due to its somewhat clandestine location and the city’s reluctance to promote the market as a tourist site for fear its days may be numbered (see below), the crowds of tourists swarming the nearby monuments most often overlook the Fish Market, making it a local favorite for good fish and good fun.
The Project for Public Spaces describes the market as an “authentic example of urban commerce at the street level…an informal outdoor place in a city that is dominated by formalism.” It is a place alive with diversity where real, working people come together with generations of vendors who have grown up fishing and crabbing on the wharf. The oldest running open air fish market in the United States, and among the few remaining markets of its kind on the East Coast, the Fish Market brings fresh fish to a multicultural community of DCers and more importantly stands as a cultural and historical landmark.
From the time of the market’s opening in 1805 until the 1960’s, fisherman made the journey out and back to Colonial Beach in Virginia to harvest fresh Atlantic seafood from the Potomac bay. Farmers and fishermen in post-Civil War DC sold fresh seafood and produce from the surrounding area, and the makeshift market became a popular shopping avenue by the early 1900s. The market found a semi-permanent indoor home in the Municipal Fish Market building in 1918, where vendors enjoyed moderate success despite the market’s location along the waterfront bordering Southwestern DC—the area quickly became the city’s poorest neighborhood after the Civil War.
In the 1960’s, developers hoped to revitalize the area with new roads, residential buildings and outdoor public spaces, displacing low-income residents and flattening many historic buildings in their path, the Municipal Fish Market among them. The vendors of the Fish Market refused to be pushed out and reclaimed a market space (however un-flatteringly located underneath the highway overpass) by pointing out a clause in their original lease agreements guaranteeing them a space in the market for 99 years. So was born the Wharf culture that exists today—the floating market barges outlining the Municipal Pier on the waterfront remain as a reminder of the market’s long and colorful history.
In 2008, the Southwest Waterfront Land Deal and proposed developments from PN Hoffman threatened some key historic structures of the wharf environment, but developers and city officials have continued to promise that the historic market will be renovated and preserved with regard to its authentic heritage. As Spotted by Locals reports, the Fish Market will soon be transformed along with the rest of DC’s southwestern waterfront in a two billion dollar development project that will leave the market in operation as part of a larger food market. Here’s hoping the authenticity and hidden-neighborhood-gem quality of the market will be maintained as developments morph the area.
The market—open 7 am-9pm daily, but with the biggest spread and widest variety of fresh fish to be found Friday through Sunday—is home to about ten vendors offering over 50 different kinds of fish, crabs and seafood. From jumbo crabs to squid to Chincoteague oysters and everything in between, if it swims, scuttles or can be shucked: you’ll find it here. Take home a pair of lobsters from Captain White’s; walk away with a heavy dozen or get the summertime blues (crab, that is) at Jessie Taylor’s; stuff yourself with clam chowder and fish n’ chips then hit Jimmy’s for a dessert of strawberry pie or carrot cake—there’s no wrong way to do the Wharf. Check out the short film “The Wharf” from Southern Foodways Alliance and Greenhouse Films for a close up look at the truly special culture of the Fish Market. Additionally, the Fish Market enjoyed a streak of fame as a featured setting for the 2009 political thriller “State of Play.” Check out one happy eater’s account of munching crab balls with Russell Crowe.
Next time you catch the faint but distinct smell of fish in the air while gazing over the Tidal Basin, follow your nose several blocks south and find yourself immersed in the colorful and historic atmosphere of the country’s oldest running open air fish market. Whether you’re looking for fresh fish to take home and throw on the grill, have a hankering for the nostalgic scratch of crab claws in the pot or simply want to soak in a different kind of truly waterfront experience, DC’s Maine Avenue Fish Market does not disappoint. As one Washington Post review comments: “Come here for fresh, well-fried seafood in large portions at agreeable prices.” Simple as that.