Historically, the Anacostia River was once a deep water channel with natural resources and home to the Nacotchtank Indians. In 1791 Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the plan for Washington, D.C., and located the city’s new commercial center and wharfs in this neighborhood after recognizing the assets of the Anacostia River. The Washington Navy Yard was nation’s largest naval shipbuilding facility in 1799, and today it is the U.S. Navy’s longest continuously operated federal facility.
Navy Yard was Washington’s earliest industrial neighborhood. One of the earliest industrial buildings was the eight-story brick Sugar House, built in Square 744 at the foot of New Jersey Avenue, SE as a sugar refinery in 1797-98. In 1805, it became the Washington Brewery, which produced beer until it closed in 1836. The are continues as a bustling nautical center during the 19th century and played an integral role in the development of the area. The wharf provided jobs, serving ships with lumber and raw materials for the growing city. It also played a key role in defending the city from the British during the War of 1812. As the city and nation evolved, the Navy Yard changed from shipbuilding to production of finished ship products and weapons ammunition. By the mid‑1940s the Navy Yard and the expanded Annex area reached peak production with 26,000 employees in 132 buildings on 127 acres of land.
However, during the 20th century the river deteriorated due to pollution. After World War II, the Navy Yard consolidated its operations to a smaller campus, which slowed the economic and neighborhood activity of the area. Furthermore, around this same time, the elevated portion of Interstate 395 was completed, creating a physical barrier for access to the river. The confluence of these factors led the riverfront neighborhoods to become neglected and overrun with crime.
For many years, the neighborhood was home to eight LGBT bars and nightclubs that have since been displaced. Velvet Nation was a weekly dance event that took place at the nightclub Nation. The club, formerly known as The Capitol Ballroom, hosted musical acts such as The Ramones, Björk, David Bowie, Eminem, and Prince.