A Floating Community Fights To Keep Traditions Alive | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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A Floating Community Fights To Keep Traditions Alive

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Residents engaged in conversation at Captain's Coffee. Most come because of the community -- a community all are hoping to preserve through the planned changes to the marina.
Marc Adams
Residents engaged in conversation at Captain's Coffee. Most come because of the community -- a community all are hoping to preserve through the planned changes to the marina.

Residents of a houseboat community in Southwest, D.C. have been gathering every Sunday morning for the past decade in a tradition that has anchored their community. But the winds of change are blowing, and the future is anything but certain.

On top of a picnic table near the entrance to the Gangplank Marina is a sign that reads, "Welcome to Captain's Coffee. If it's too cold, we'll move to Debbie's place."

Boats rest peacefully on the water as the sun creeps further up from the edge of the horizon. The dock remains quiet in the winter chill of a Sunday morning. Long time resident Roger Thiel arrives at Debbie's houseboat loaded with coffee supplies.

" The idea is that we're going to have the coffee up and brewing for people by 9:30," says Thiel. "And they show up sometimes at 9:30, but more often at 10."

Like he's done every Sunday for the past several years, Thiel has organized Sunday morning's Captain's Coffee. It's a tradition that started more than a decade ago when the community organization, Port of Washington Yacht club, was still in its infancy.

"Captain's Coffee just means that we get together socially on Sunday morning to enjoy the waterfront and each other's company and get up to date in very informal situations," Thiel says. "In the summer months [it's] at an outdoor picnic area, and for these four months of the year [it's] at host boats."

Debbie Christianson has graciously volunteered her small space this week. Neighbors of all ages and backgrounds quickly fill up her houseboat, each bringing a sugary pastry to add to the assortment of coffee options. For Christianson, seeing everyone is exactly why she moved here.

"I lived in an apartment for a year over in Ballston, and in that year I never got to know a single neighbor," she says. "And after just a couple of months here, I knew a lot of people and three years later, I'm now the commodore of the Yacht club."

Upcoming changes for a community gathering

Captain's Coffee was one of the ways she came to meet so many of her neighbors. Resident Eve Bratman has found a more practical side to it.

"It was the best way to meet the neighbors and get all the houseboat tips I needed," she says. I live on an old houseboat that needs a lot of work so Captain's Coffee is a great source of knowledge as well as camaraderie."

However, the days of this communal tradition in all of its glorious informality may be numbered. Developers have been making plans to renovate the waterfront, transforming this quiet marina into a bustling tourist destination. Construction is slated to start in January 2013. Thiel likens the vision of the new marina to the Baltimore Harbor.

"I would say that like our shaggy way of doing Captain's Coffee though, we are savoring this old way while we still can," he says. "In the future I think it's just going to be different, probably inevitable, but we're savoring what we got."

Things are already changing. The marina has placed a cap on the number of live aboard boats that can be docked, and the live aboard license for each of the 94 houseboats currently in the marina must be renewed on a yearly basis. This means there is no legal protection guaranteeing anyone will be able to stay here permanently.

"We have about as much rights as a car in a parking garage," says resident Eve Bratman.

Still hope springs eternal. Residents say the developers have been keeping the community closely involved in the planning, and that gives Mikhael Schlossman and others confidence in the face of uncertainty.

"Of course change is going to bring change," says Schlossman. "I mean we don't know what is going to happen. But I think we have such great people and such a great team of folks that people seem to be looking out for each other. So we don't think of the change as being a problem, but we think of it as something we can thrive with."

Thiel says the changes could mean Captain's Coffee will no longer be at picnic tables or houseboats but rather, a newly built clubhouse. That is assuming this community does something that others in D.C. have failed to do in the face of development... survive.

"It's hard to say what the future will hold," says resident Jason Kopp. "I think the biggest factor of whether we as a community survive and whether we adapt to the new circumstances will be just how much we support each other, and how much we are able to prioritize and tell people around here that these are the things that are most important to us."

[Music: "Black Coffee in Bed (Instrumental)" by Ernie Halter from Karoake]

Photos: Captain's Coffee

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