Barracks Row just might be Washington's best-kept secret. It's the manicured tree-lined streets, the historic storefronts brimming with boutiques and cafes, and the sense of community that make this neighborhood minutes away from the Capitol building so attractive.
Residents are quick to comment that the neighborhood trudged through some dark days and is now experiencing a renaissance of spectacular proportions - 11 new businesses have opened on this several-block corridor in the past year, and four more are slated to open in the coming months. Since the community began its grassroots revitalization in 1999, 27 companies have come to this stretch of Eighth Street Southeast, and 31 building facades have been restored.
"It's like night and day," says Nora Kepes, a nine-year Capitol Hill resident who helps tend to the home furnishing shop Alvear Studio. "A few years ago I wouldn't have worked here. There used to be vagrants sleeping in the doorways and open-air drug markets. It's certainly not like that now."
The strip was one of the city's first commercial districts, with the establishment of the Washington Navy Yard nearby in 1799 and the construction of the Marine Barracks in 1801, says Bill McLeod, Barracks Row Mainstreet director. But after World War II, the Navy Yard experienced a reduction in force, and in 1955 segregation ended and white flight took its toll on the inner city. In the 1960s, freeway construction bisected the area, and the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination devastated much of the city.
Many residents and businesses packed up and never returned to Barracks Row - until the late 1990s, when business owners rallied together to attract new businesses and foster growth among existing ones, says McLeod. "Things have really taken off in the last two to three years."
Laurie Morin, owner of two Barracks Row businesses - Hoopla Traders and Capitol Hill Bikes - says one reason for the influx of one-of-a-kind shops is that visiting the strip is not like strolling through a cookie-cutter shopping mall.
"You can go to any city anywhere and find a Banana Republic and a Pottery Barn. They're great stores, but that's not what Barracks Row is about," Morin says. "It's about things that are different and small-scale. It's a new generation of mom and pop shops."
"Plus everybody's friendly and there's no attitude, like in Georgetown," Kepes says.
Barracks Row newcomer Sarah Chellgren, proprietor of the posh dress shop Plaid, says the collegial relationship among business owners is unparalleled and uncharacteristic of today's corporate culture. "We want each of us to do well," she says. "One person's success is all of our successes."
Since the revitalization of Barracks Row has been a largely volunteer communitywide effort, residents here take pride in the work they've done to transform the neighborhood in a relatively short period of time, McLeod says. They get a chance to relish their success monthly at a unique public block party called Second Saturday.
"These people feel really invested in the Hill, and Second Saturday is a way for the neighbors to come out and celebrate with each other in kind of a community happy hour," McLeod says.
While Second Saturday was started by the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants & Professionals as a neighborhood arts promotion program spanning several areas on the Hill, the event has quickly become one of the most anticipated recurring events on Barracks Row. Most participating businesses in the area have sales, art shows and open houses from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., but attendees make a beeline for the strip of shops across the street from the Marine barracks as the party kicks into high gear later in the evening. Barracks Row has become "party central" from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on these nights, McLeod says.
Where to eat
Banana Cafe (500 Eighth St. S.E., 202-543-5906): You can't miss the bright-pink exterior of Banana Cafe - and you don't want to miss the tapas, empanadas and quesadillas inside. In the evening, check out the piano bar, where local musicians sing classic ballads.
Marty's (527 Eighth St. S.E., 202-546-4952): One of Barracks Row's newest additions is quickly becoming one of the neighborhood's most popular. This family-oriented restaurant serves all-American favorites at reasonable prices.
Ellington's on Eighth (424A Eighth St. S.E., 202-546-8308): If you play your cards right, you might happen upon a local jazz singer crooning hits of yesteryear at this champagne lounge and garden cafe.
Starfish Cafe (537 Eighth St. S.E., 202-546-5006): This hotspot specializes in seafood prepared with a spicy Creole flavor and a Caribbean twist.
Where to shop
Alvear Studio (705 Eighth St. S.E., 202-546-8434): Owner Chris Alvear brings unique finds from his frequent jaunts to the West Coast, Mexico and beyond. Pop in here for some distinctive accouterments for home and hearth.
Hoopla Traders (733 Eighth St. S.E., 202-544-3620): Described by its owner as a place for fun folks to find something a little unusual. Hoopla's artisans merge divergent styles, colors and moods in several cozy showrooms.
Plaid (715 Eighth St. S.E., 202-675-6900): Owner Sarah Chellgren carries a slew of must-have fashions straight from the nation's top emerging designers.
Pawticulars (407 Eighth St. S.E., 202-546-7387): Buy a gourmet treat for your pampered pooch and browse through the shop's extensive line of specialty products.
Friday night parades in the Marine Barracks: The U.S. Marine Band, drill team and bugle corps wow bystanders May through August at these well-attended weekly parades. Reservations required. Call 202-433-6060.
Navy Museum: From ship to shore, the Navy Museum is a best bet for history buffs. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are required for weekend visits. Call 202-433-4882.
Take Interstate 95 south to Exit 22B, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, toward Washington. Merge onto Maryland Route 295 south, which becomes I-295 south. Take the Howard Road exit (3B) toward downtown. Turn left onto Howard Road Southeast and merge onto I-295 north via the ramp on the left. Take the exit toward Eighth Street Southeast and turn left onto I Street Southeast, then right onto Eighth Street Southeast.