One of my Boston friends was in DC yesterday to visit people she knew before going to a conference in Baltimore. Since Friday is the one day when I don’t have regular tutoring or teaching commitments, I was able to head into the District to meet up with her in the afternoon. She suggested that we meet up by the Waterfront Metro station and walk to an ice cream shop called Ice Cream Jubilee, that has apparently gotten reviewed as “the best ice cream shop in DC”. Given that I grew up in the area, and can’t think of any ice cream places that make their own ice cream, while I know of several in Boston, it’s possible that this is a reasonable claim. Certainly, the salty apple cinnamon ice cream I had was really tasty.
That said, the interesting part of this story isn’t really the ice cream, it’s the fact that I got to visit a part of the District I’d never been to before. Although I grew up inside the Beltway, my family did not go into the District very often when I was growing up, and when we did it was mostly to go to the museums and monuments along the Mall, or to a few other specific locations, like the National Geographic Museum in Farragut Square, the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue, and the National Arboretum on Bladensburg Road. Since moving back to the area, I’ve occasionally walked or driven through the northern parts of DC north of the original Washington city limits because they’re a convenient path between places in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. But, just as I’ve never had much reason to go south of Central Avenue in Prince George’s County, I’ve never really had a reason to visit the southern parts of the District. In particular, I’d never been to the oddly isolated southernmost part of the original City of Washington, located in the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac and separated from the west of Washington-west-of-the-Anacostia by a huge wall of freeways.
This urban island is technically divided into two neighborhoods: the Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard. Both have rather unusual histories. The Southwest Waterfront is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the District, but it is also the one area of the District that suffered the most severely from the urban renewal of the 1950’s. As a result, much of the neighborhood seemed to be a monoculture of Brutalist apartment buildings and cul-de-sacs where streets had been made to not connect to break up the walkable grid. Between this, and the elevated freeways towering just to the north (this is also the only part of the District to have suffered from mid-Twentieth Century urban freeway building), it was quite a strange experience. Interestingly, though, at least part of the area seems to be being redeveloped. There is a clearly very new Safeway grocery store next to the Waterfront Metro station and large areas just south of the freeways seemed to have been cleared and turned into construction sites.
To get to Ice Cream Jubilee, we had to walk west across South Capitol Street into Navy Yard, the other neighborhood south of the freeways and north of the Anacostia. This area was once largely taken up by the Washington Navy Yard. However, while it still exists, the Navy Yard has shrunk significantly in the last half-century, and the area became first a decaying industrial neighborhood and now a prime spot for redevelopment, particularly given its proximity to a Metro station, downtown jobs, and the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium. I had vaguely been aware of this, but I was still kind of surprised by just how much the neighborhood liked like Kendall Square in Cambridge, except for having a more rectilinear street grid. Essentially, every lot was either a construction site or a ten- or fifteen- story building built in the same, rather ugly, Modernist style. And all of the commercial buildings seemed to be really fancy restaurants or other amenities for gentrifiers. This includes Ice Cream Jubilee. For some reason, I’d expected an old neighborhood ice cream shop like Tosci’s in Cambridge. Instead, the business is apparently only two years old, founded by a former political appointee from the Department of Homeland Security, and in a brand new and kind of ugly glass building. The ice cream wasn’t that horribly expensive, at least, though it was more expensive than Tosci’s, and not something I would want to pay for regularly even not counting the subway fare to get there. But I was a bit shocked by the degree to which the whole neighborhood appeared to be a combination of housing for and a playground for rich people.