Congress Market, 5th and East Capitol SE
“Why go far afield when within three or four blocks there at the heart of Capitol Hill we had the Capitol of the United States, the Library of Congress, Mr. Johnnie’s Ice Cream and Candy Store, Grubb’s Pharmacy, Sherrill’s Bakery and Restaurant, McPhee’s Men’s Haberdashery, at least four churches, one school, four doctors, a barbershop, two corner grocery stores, two delicatessens, a dentist, a milliner, a leaky movie theater, Providence Hospital, four undertakers and Santa Claus?”
-Mary Z. Gray
May 11, 2013, Washington, DC: I recently read “301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill.” It’s a great neighborhood history by Mary Z. Gray, and I told her how much I liked it last weekend when I met the 94-year old at Literary Hill BookFest at Eastern Market. I told Ms. Gray that now when I walk by her old house and the former homes of her friends and family, I suddenly feel like I know who lives there, even though the characters in her stories moved out decades ago.
Although much of the neighborhood has changed since Ms. Gray explored it as a child in the 1920s (don’t I wish we still had a candy shop and a leaky movie theater and a haberdashery if only for its name), it’s uplifting to see many remnants of the neighborhood she enjoyed still standing. Churches are still tightly concentrated in the blocks behind the Capitol, Grubb’s Pharmacy is still open, and so are the corner stores.
I took a walk recently to photograph the corner stores, recognizing them as an integral element of the neighborhood. As an adult, I’ve gravitated towards neighborhoods where I can walk down the block to pick up a carton of milk or some laundry detergent, places where running errands rarely involves getting in the car. In her book, Ms. Gray credits DC’s original city planner Pierre L’Enfant with envisioning mixed-use neighborhoods where that’s possible. ”L’Enfant’s idea for filling this diamond was to begin with squares and circles forming small town centers that would gradually grow into larger towns until they melded, and, eventually, filled out into a city,” she wrote. “Each population center had its own necessities and conveniences, hence the corner grocery stores and other amenities that remain.”
A few of the corner stores in southeast and northeast DC are pictured here, as is Grubb’s Pharmacy: