Scrappy Neighborhood Plots a Bright Future

Barracks Row Seeks Community Coziness and Business Appeal

Posted January 9, 2009 at 4:32pm

The scrappy neighborhood of Barracks Row southeast of Capitol Hill wants the world to know that its streets are no longer dangerous and its bars and restaurants are well worth a visit.

The corridor along Eighth Street Southeast used to be closely associated in locals’ minds with the shady reputation of the District’s southeast quadrant. Only about 10 years ago did it begin to take a turn for the better, according to Louis Wassel, interim executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the neighborhood’s business appeal.

“Barracks Row has always tried to maintain that neighborhood Capitol Hill feel,” he said, crediting residents and community groups such as BRMS with effecting the change.

The 1,000 Marines stationed at the barracks are also an influential force for good in the neighborhood. On Tuesdays and Fridays during the summer, the Marines host a parade that draws 3,500 guests on Fridays, said Cpl. Jacob Harrer, a public affairs specialist.

The Marines also offer weekly tours of the barracks throughout the year, and the House of the Commandant, where the Marines’ highest-ranking officer lives with his family, has been opened for tours, too. The Marines help with the neighborhood’s Oktoberfest celebration, and the neighborhood collaborates on the Marines’ Toys for Tots drive leading up to Christmas.

The neighborhood benefits from its Marine inhabitants in other ways as well, such as their patronage of barbershops for weekly haircuts and tailors for their dress blue uniforms. They also draw guests as esteemed as President George W. Bush.

Harrer said he and his peers also serve as a deterrent to crime in the neighborhood.

“The Marines having a presence here makes it very safe and inviting,” he said, contrasting it with the less-secure surrounding areas. He told the story of a Marine who stopped an armed felon who had escaped from police near the Eastern Market Metro station in 2007.

Barracks Row community leaders are most proud of the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants, which rival those in similar up-and-coming neighborhoods such as the H Street and U Street corridors. Other than the barracks itself, bars and restaurants are the primary reason visitors come to Barracks Row. The popular Irish bar Finn MacCool’s recently closed after it was sold to the owner of next-door Lola’s Barracks Bar & Grill but will reopen as a new bar soon. Establishments such as Belga Cafe, Banana Cafe & Piano Bar and the Ugly Mug bar bring in visitors from across the region.

Yet the restaurants’ success hasn’t translated to the same for retail establishments. Like the restaurants, they tend to be non-franchised establishments. Two thriving examples are Hill’s Kitchen, which offers gourmet kitchenware at 713 D St. SE, and Homebody, which sells contemporary furnishings next door.

Wassel’s office is located one floor above the former home of Ipso Crafto, a craft store that closed in December. He blames rising rent costs for retail stores’ struggles to stay open.

Julia Christian, the executive director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, said the problem is the lack of foot traffic. Pedestrians who are drawn to Barracks Row for its bars and restaurants often stop short of going into stores. She hopes that will change in the future.

“You already know you’re going out to dinner, but you didn’t know you were going to stop at Homebody and pick up a plate,” she said.

The corridor’s other persistent problem is visitors’ reluctance to explore anything south of the imposing Interstate 395 overpass. This fall, a group of University of Maryland community planning graduate students researched ways to bring people beyond the overpass, uniting the two sides of Eighth Street. In their final recommendations, the students detailed different scenarios, including dismantling the overpass and turning the underlying Virginia Avenue into a more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly route, adding more office and retail space, and building a mix of housing in a new “urban village.”

In the meantime, Christian said, the lower end of Barracks Row doesn’t deserve its rough reputation. She grew up around Capitol Hill and moved to Eighth and L streets in July. She said she enjoys peace in the neighborhood after the corner store closes at 8 p.m.

“It’s sort of a secret,” she said, chuckling. “I try to be tight-lipped about it because I’m enjoying the quiet of it.”