A Forum, an Exhibit and a Hike Add to the Story of Saving the River

Our River: The Anacostia

Entrance to the Anacostia Museum Exhibit – A Right to the City. Photo credit: Renee Sklarew.

I had the honor last month to serve as Moderator of an inspiring forum discussing how we got where we are in the Anacostia River revival and the challenges that we face in the future, especially as they relate to the people in neighborhoods along and near the River. The session was held at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum in Ward 8, and the audience included a number of distinguished folks, including former DC Mayor Tony Williams.

The panel was comprised of five experienced and articulate community leaders: Jim Connolly, longtime leader of the Anacostia Watershed Society; George Hawkins, recently retired CEO and General Manager of DC Water; Tara Morrison, Superintendent of National Capitol Parks-East for the National Park Service; Adam Ortiz, Director of the Prince Georges County Department of the Environment; and Brenda Lee Richardson, who has spent 25 years in various capacities working on environmental justice and education, economic development, health and welfare for Anacostia communities.

What Drew You To The River
The panel responded to four questions. The first was, “What drew you to the River and made its recovery so much a part of your life?” The answers were strikingly varied. For some their interest came from growing up near the water and wanting to take up the cause of the Anacostia – in Tara’s case it was Long Island Sound where the water was safe and accessible, and in George’s along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, where it was so polluted it occasionally caught fire. For others it was the chance to get away. Jim saw rowing the River as a time for peace and isolation, and Brenda for a chance to escape the poverty, crime and violence she was trying to reduce for others. Adam, as a new suburbanite, saw it as place where people in spread-out subdivisions could come together.

Lotus Pond at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Photo credit: Renee Sklarew.

The River and People
The second question was, “When and how did you come to realize that the fate of the River and the people along it were intertwined? And who were those most important to engage?” For Jim, the early message from the River was that people were causing the pollution, the sediment and other problems in the River and that eventually they would all need to understand and take responsibility. Tara pointed out that it is a big task to educate people that they are part of the problem and to engage them with clear messages and challenges – people are very busy and must be lured into caring. Brenda was drawn in by seeing so many from poor families removing fish from the River to eat, unaware that this might be dangerous for their health or of what could be done to make those fish safe. George was impressed by the changes in perception that came from restoring Watts Branch and Marvin Gaye Park. Where before they were viewed as crime-ridden and dangerous, after restoration they were transformed into safe, natural spaces that engaged the whole community. And for Adam, the realization was reinforced when he ran successfully for Mayor of Edmonston in 2005, came to understand the importance of freed slaves to the community’s sense of history along the River, and led recovery from three major floods during his tenure, engaging the community to take an award-winning lead in green infrastructure to deal with stormwater flows there and downstream.

How Did We Get Here
The third question was, “What were the most important steps in recent years to get us the progress we see in the River and the communities adjacent?” This elicited a wide range of responses. To Adam, a lot of things have made the difference. But the most important is to help people make the connection to the River and celebrate that after 400 years of neglect we are moving in the right direction. To him, the key is the “Come to the River” campaigns that get folks down and along the water – in boats, on bikes or hikes, at barbecues, at roller rinks, as clean-up volunteers — whatever way works. It’s not just the “big players” that count. Brenda concurred; everyone matters and should have ways to enjoy the River – above all to not be priced out. Tara pointed out that in her experience folks need to be engaged first, then involved once they have bought in to the relationship through trust. George gave a tip of the hat to the degree of cooperation among all levels of government to get the job done and engage the public to support the effort. He noted Prince Georges’ green infrastructure projects, DC’s trash traps and sediment controls; DC Water’s combined sewer tunnels and DC residents willingness to cover the costs as prime examples. Jim pointed out that the restoration effort involves 63 government entities working together on investment, enforcement and education, as well as many other groups engaged in tree planting, trash removal, canoe trips and any number of other efforts.

What Lies Ahead
The final question for the panel was a look to the future, “Now that the River has responded, what lies ahead – in the water, along the shoreline and in the communities along and near the water?” In answer to this there was remarkable consensus, if not across the board optimism. On the one hand, Tara believes we have turned the corner and have a great team in place. Brenda raises the specter of DC’s Chinatown, where displacement and increased housing costs have markedly reduced the resident population, and raises the need to deal with displacement of families from economics, rising water levels, and effects of climate change on the riversides. Adam sees the existence of “legacy pollutants” in the bottom of the River as an ongoing issue, and hopes that this “Golden Age of Cooperation” can be carried on into the future, particularly with the commitment of the Federal government less clear. George also sees legacy pollutants as an on-going issue, and sees gentrification and increasing recreation pressure on the River as potential threats to the recovering natural systems, as well as a need to deal with climate change issues. And Jim is not sure if the job to assure a River safe to swim and fish is ever done, especially in an era of climate change and increased density of people along the water. So the work and the challenges will continue.

After the forum, folks were invited to visit the current exhibit in the museum, A Right to the City — how Washingtonians have shaped and reshaped their neighborhoods in extraordinary ways. It repeats many of the themes of the forum with respect to six neighborhoods, two of which – Southwest and Anacostia – are along the River. It examines five decades of neighborhood change and how ordinary citizens have worked together in remarkable ways. The exhibit should not be missed and is on display until April 20, 2020, so you have time.

What you may not have time for is the all-day hiking tour of the Anacostia sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and set for October 8 from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. But it is only the first of what will be a series of tours along the River set up by the Associates with Rachel Cooper and Renee Sklarew, authors of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Washington D.C. The problem with this tour is that it was sold out by early September, although there is a waiting list. The other day I was in a doctor’s office and picked up a copy of a well know Washington monthly; from a brief perusal, it seemed that no one on the staff had ever heard of SE, SW or even NE DC. In contrast, the sold-out tour of the Anacostia is offered at $135 for Associates and $185 for non-members. Somebody is listening to what’s happening on Our River!