Our latest Greenhouse Film, The Wharf, is a portrait of the Maine Avenue Fish Market in Washington, DC. Filmmakers Emily Hilliard and Ashley Melzer explain the history of the market and their motivation for making the film.
The Maine Avenue Fish Market, or The Wharf, as it’s referred to by most locals, is not a place you are likely to stumble upon. It’s tucked away under the I-395 overpass and sits on floating docks on DC’s southwest waterfront. It wasn’t always so hidden.
Opening in 1805, the market is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the United States, and one of the only open-air fish markets on the East Coast. It has undergone several iterations in order to stay afloat, though. In the 1960s, it was relocated from its original location on the Washington Channel due to an urban renewal project on the waterfront. The threat of closure loomed, but vendors refused to leave, citing a clause in their lease which allowed them to stay for 99 years. Thus, the market was moved to its current location, tucked under an overpass.
As we interviewed customers and employees for this film, we learned of other changes in the local seafood industry that have affected the Wharf and contributed to its evolution. Many of the vendors we talked to are from nearby fishing communities: the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, as well as Smith Island. As seafood jobs have declined in their hometowns, they have found jobs at the Maine Avenue Fish Market. The pay is good, and it allows them to keep working in seafood.
The market has also changed in terms of what it offers. Though the two main companies there, Captain White’s and Jessie Taylor’s, still offer some local seafood—Virginia clams, Chincoteague Oysters, and some Maryland blue crab—they also import some products, such as tilapia and squid from national and international ports.
Customers and DC locals remain loyal to the Wharf. They cite its affordability, diversity, and history as assets to the city. As the waterfront is yet again on the brink of redevelopment, it’s unclear what changes that will bring to the market, but developers have stated that it will be renovated and preserved.
This film aims to be a snapshot of this historic DC fish market at a crucial moment in time.