But community service only goes so far. If the Coast Guard, and the larger Homeland Security team that’s expected to follow, are to have a real economic impact, their workers will have to start spending money in the community. Schafler raves about Mama’s Kitchen in Anacostia— “they’ve got the best freakin’ ribs in the country”—but admits it’s hard to get Coast Guard workers to make the mile-plus trek there or to the few other local eateries for lunch.
The city made an effort to lure Coast Guard employees off of their compound by erecting an $8 million temporary “Gateway Pavilion” just across Martin Luther King from the DHS complex on the East Campus and offering teensy rents—initially $1 a month, then reduced to free—to food trucks and other vendors who set up shop there. But the pavilion hasn’t really brought Coast Guard workers into the neighborhood, since a tunnel allows them to access it without setting foot on MLK, the neighborhood’s main drag. And it’s still not exactly flooded with feds at lunchtime.
“We’ve got an underpass to the St. Elizabeths pavilion,” says Schafler. “It’s a 15-minute walk. If you have 30 minutes for lunch, you can’t do it.”
When the West Campus opened, the federal government limited the size of its cafeteria, hoping that workers would be motivated to spill out into the community for lunch. (It also restricted on-site parking to just one space for every four employees to encourage people to take the Metro or bus to work and further engage with the neighborhood.) But many employees simply bring lunch, and the cafeteria, with its brick pizza oven and offerings when I visited like vindaloo pork and curry chicken, is still a lot more appealing than a trek into Congress Heights for a bite from a carryout.