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Development


How the Navy, baseball, and government planners made Capitol Riverfront one of DC's hottest neighborhoods

Capitol Riverfront, the area around Nats ballpark, ranks high on any list of Washington's most rapidly transforming neighborhoods. But it took more than baseball to make that transformation happen.


Image from the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan.

By the last decade of the 20th Century, Washington's Anacostia River waterfront was a crime-plagued and dirty testament to urban neglect. It wasn't a nice place to be.

But beginning in the 1990s, a string of ambitious plans, government projects, and private-sector infusions have turned the neighborhood into a thriving and desirable place to spend time.

Here's the story of how that happened.

Metrorail brings federal workers

When the Metrorail Green Line opened its Navy Yard station in 1991, that opened the door to an infusion of people and money into the neighborhood. That infusion began in earnest in the mid 1990s when two federal groups decided to move thousands of office workers into the area: The Naval Sea Command (NAVSEA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Following post-Cold War military base consolidation, the US Navy opted to move over 5,000 NAVSEA workers from offices in Crystal City to the Navy Yard. Meanwhile, DOT announced it would build a new headquarters four blocks from the Navy Yard complex that would house over 6,000 workers.

Those two massive construction projects, the ensuing permanent influx of employees, and the subsequent ripple effect of service retail and of contractors looking for nearby offices, combined to provide a huge economic stimulus.

The District does its part

Michael Stevens, director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), points to the 1999 election of Mayor Anthony Williams as the next turning point.

Under Mayor Williams' direction, DC began a concerted effort to re-plan and better manage the Anacostia riverfront. That effort culminated with the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative master plan, which provided a consensus vision for what the Anacostia shore could become, including its layout of streets, buildings, and public spaces.

Following the District's adoption of the master plan, the riverfront BID started up in 2007. At first the BID simply worked to make riverfront streets cleaner and safer, but as successes mounted their mission evolved to building parks, running public events, and managing economic development.

In 2004 the Montreal Expos moved to DC, becoming the Washington Nationals. City leaders opted to build a permanent stadium along the riverfront, and Nats Park opened in 2008.

The baseball stadium did unquestionably bring new people to the riverfront, and certainly helped spread the center of gravity south from M Street. Together with other parks, such as the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the riverfront has become unique among emerging DC neighborhoods with great public recreational spaces being built right alongside housing, retail and offices

Housing pressure mounts

The riverfront's renaissance hasn't been without controversy, particularly where older residential buildings, and the people in them, are concerned.

A $35 million federal grant to redevelop the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg public housing project surrounding 4th Street SE has been especially challenging.

The 23-acre housing project was built in the 1950s with 707 homes. But with DC's population increasing and demand for housing skyrocketing, 700-some homes on 23 acres just isn't enough, not four blocks from a Metro station.

Although the plan was to replace low-income apartments on a one-for-one basis, residents were displaced during construction. Gentrification was a definite fear.

But with the redevelopment area now approaching its planned 1,700 units, and full replacement of income-restricted homes guaranteed, the upheaval seems to have been worth it. Hundreds of low-income families have new homes, and added 1,000 households are enjoying the revitalized neighborhood.

With offices, entertainment, and parks in place, and an increasing number of residents in the redeveloped Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg project and elsewhere, the riverfront is truly booming.

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Sustainability


Anacostia Park can help weaken climate change's damage

Anacostia Park could better serve the needs of the surrounding community if it were easier to access and there were more to do there. Fixing it up could also help protect generations of District residents from the worst impacts of climate change.


Anacostia Park. Photo by Krista Schlyer.

Real environmental problems are on the horizon

The primary challenge that climate change will put in front of the District in coming decades will be the risk of flooding caused by both tides and storm water. DC will lead the East Coast in tidal floods by 2045, due to rising sea levels, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released last year.

Large-scale projects such as seawalls are going up to protect DC's critical infrastructure, but smart growth and green infrastructure can often accomplish the same mission at a fraction of the cost.

In an attempt to clean up the Anacostia, DC has invested billions in a new storm water storage and treatment facility to capture overflow from the city's ageing sewage system. This system will be largely effective for everything but the most extreme weather events, but unfortunately, we're headed for more of those: Storms are predicted to increase in severity, if not frequency, because of climate change.

Parks and rain gardens can help with this problem because they absorb a lot of stormwater. More parks would make it less likely that DC's water treatment system gets overloaded.


Photo by Krista Schlyer.

What's more, expanding the stormwater storage and treatment system will likely be cost prohibitive for the foreseeable future. That means protecting existing green space like Anacostia Park, and finding new ways to replace impermeable surfaces with ecologically friendly alternatives like rain gardens can go a very long way in helping DC manage its stormwater.

Parks can help us address those problems

The parks and wetlands that line the Anacostia-- referred to by many as "green infrastructure"-- is the first line of defense against flooding and stormwater pollution. Collectively, these areas will save the city billions of dollars in damage from tidal floods alone by the middle of this century.

"As they wind their way toward the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers define the borders of Washington, D.C. and the many historic landmarks nearby, from Arlington National Cemetery to Old Town Alexandria, Va," reads the UCS survey. "Tides affect these rivers, and tidal flooding can produce effects ranging from patches of standing waters in parks to flooded roadways."

Parks can also provide other environmental lines of defense. For example, they bring down the "urban heat island" effect. Trees and plants in these areas can also act as a sink for carbon and other pollutants. These climatological advantages do not even begin to explore the social benefits to emotional and physical well being that comes from access to green space.


Green space along the Anacostia in DC. Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

DC is working to prepare for coming risks

Investing in green infrastructure along the Anacostia Waterfront is the first and easiest step in confronting the environmental challenges that are predicted for the next century. Doing so doesn't require vast amounts of time or money or scarce resources in city government, but it does require commitment and creativity to execute effectively.

Hundreds of acres of impermeable parking lots surround RFK stadium, sending thousands of gallons of stormwater into the Anacostia with each rainfall and increasing the potential for flooding. Directing energy and funds towards underutilized, but strategically located areas along the Anacostia could be an ideal place to start.

In October, DC played host to mayors and city sustainability directors from around the world as part of the Our Cities, Our Climate international mayoral exchange, convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg.

"As the nation's capital, we will continue to lead the nation in green energy and sustainable practices." Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged, welcoming the attendees. "By taking bold and concrete steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will improve the long-term health of our community, while creating good paying jobs that build pathways to the middle class for our residents."

Mayor Bowser rightly credits DC for being one of the most progressive cities in the country when it comes to confronting the myriad challenges posed by a changing climate, but the magnitude of these problems will only continue to grow, along with the cost of inaction.

The District is presented with a unique opportunity to become more resilient by simply protecting existing park and marshland along the Anacostia, while looking for opportunities to expand such infrastructure wherever possible. If Mayor Bowser and the rest of city government champion this policy, it will greatly increase the region's resilience to climate change, whatever the future may hold.

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Sustainability


A more accessible Anacostia Park would mean a healthier community

Anacostia Park is part more than 1,200 acres of parks and wetlands that sit along the Anacostia River. It's not in great shape, but there are people working to turn it around. If they succeed, residents are set to reap the health and social benefits that come with quality parks.


The waterfront trail running through Anacostia Park. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Overshadowed by the Washington Monument on the National Mall, the Anacostia Waterfront, which the National Parks Service and District government manage together, is one of Washington's most undervalued landmarks.

Originally planned nearly 100 years ago, the waterfront was designed under the McMillan Plan to be a grand public park running along the river, featuring promenades, islands, and bathing lagoons.


Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

Over the ensuing century, however, Anacostia Park was neglected and underused. Despite all that it has to offer, Anacostia Park never achieved the kind of recognition from tourists or regular use from residents that places like Rock Creek and Meridian Hill do.

Part of the problem is that much of the park is bounded is by the Anacostia River on one side and a busy highway on the other, limiting access by public transportation and connection to the rest of the city.

Parks can help address public health issues in Anacostia

Communities east of the Anacostia River are plagued with elevated rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, so much so that there's clearly an expanding the gulf between these underserved areas and the rest of the District. According to the city's most recent assessment, residents of Ward 8 have the highest rates of obesity and are the least likely to exercise of anyone in the city.

The health woes people in Anacostia face persist despite the fact that many people live within a mile of Anacostia Park or Waterfront Trail.


The Anacostia Waterfront trail has an aast and west branch along both sides of the river, and runs for a total of 15 miles.

There's proof that the active lifestyle parks encourage mean lower obesity rates and high blood pressure rates as well as fewer doctor's visits and fewer annual medical costs. Further benefits include lower levels of cholesterol and respiratory diseases, enhanced survival after a heart attack, faster recovery from surgery, fewer medical complaints, and reduced stress.

Recognizing what Anacostia Park can do for residents as well as how much it's been ignored, recent administrations—starting with Anthony Williams, who was in office from 1999 until 2007—have championed the park and waterfront, slowly shifting investment across the river. In the past decade, new playgrounds have gone up, and 15 miles of new trails have formed the nucleus of the Anacostia Waterfront Trail.

Both what's coming to the Waterfront and what's already there make for tremendous opportunity to serve community health needs in Wards 7 and 8.


Anacostia park lacks the public transportation options that other places have. This is the only bikeshare station located along the eastern branch of the Waterfront Trail.

New programing is a great tool for increasing park attendance. Last year, the National Park Service hosted the first annual Anacostia River Festival to promote "the history, ecology, and communities along its riverbanks." The inaugural event was an opportunity for the community and local politicians to come out in support of the Park and another is in the works for this upcoming spring.

Here's how DC can connect Anacostia Park to its community

For progress to continue, interest in Anacostia Park has to go beyond these periodic events and promising proposals. The easiest way to support active use is making sure people know about all that Anacostia Park has to offer.

According to the American Planning Association, for a park to increase physical activity it needs to be accessible, close to where people live, and have good lighting, toilets, and drinking water, and attractive scenery. Today, Anacostia Park has some of these things, but others are sorely lacking.


This is the south-eastern tip of Anacostia Park and Waterfront Trail, seen from across the river at Yards Park.

The first thing that would get more people using Anacostia Park would be creating convenient points of access. Creative infrastructure and programs could be replicated in Anacostia Park based on what other cities have used to successfully boost attendance and forge a connection with the community.

In Chicago, The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance helped community members create a "Quality of Life Plan," identifying top issues facing the community in order to craft policies that the park to meet the most pressing needs. Since 2005, the initiative has facilitated coordination between local employers, provided employment for 84 local youth, and mobilized over 10,000 residents to support a number of projects.

In New York, a collaboration between the Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) High School resulted in a curriculum based on the physical and educational resources of the Botanic Garden. Such a partnership could be replicated between the National Arboretum, Park Service, and City if the interest and collective will are demonstrated.

Fortunately, creating new ways to access the park and things to do once people are there does not require large sums of money because Anacostia Park doesn't need to be built or set aside. What it does demand, however, is public and private support as well as a willingness to incorporate the communities these changes are meant to benefit into the planning process.

To foster dialogue between the community and other stakeholders, The Anacostia Waterfront Trust has recently partnered with 13 other organizations to form the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative.

While still taking shape, the APCC is designed to engage with nearby residents in order to promote active use and develop long term plans. Efforts like these can help ensure that the many projects and initiatives intended to help residents of the Anacostia Waterfront actually serve their purpose.

Other parks are blossoming nearby

Work is ongoing to create an additional 13 miles of trails connecting the park to other sites along the Waterfront, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Yards Park, and the National Arboretum.

Another example of a Waterfront project that can do a lot for its community is the 11th Street Bridge Park. The project will include an education center, outdoor performance spaces, and urban agriculture, and when it's finished, it will be a link Wards 6, 7, and 8.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park design team.

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Development


Plans are gelling for a park over the Anacostia. Here are ways to ensure it helps, not displaces, existing residents.

The group behind the plan to build a park on the old 11th Street Bridge is seriously committed to making sure the project is a net gain for the communities around it. It wants to work with both the District government and nonprofits to grow the local workforce, boost small businesses, and increase the area's affordable housing stock.


The 11th Street Bridge Park will concentrate activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

The plan includes 19 concrete recommendations for how to bring economic opportunities to the neighborhoods adjacent to the park without also bringing the negatives that neighborhoods often experience when they get wealthier.

Of course, the 11th Street Bridge Park team, based out of Ward 8's Building Bridges across the River at THEARC, exists mostly to build a park on the foundations of an old highway bridge over the Anacostia River. And it's getting there. The team has raised around 11 of the 45 million dollars required to build and endow the park.

The typical gentrification narrative doesn't work for Anacostia residents

But by its very nature—it would connect Capitol Hill to Historic Anacostia—the coming park will be another chapter in the larger narrative of change in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.


The Census tracts the Bridge Park team wants to focus its social efforts on. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

For years, activists have lamented the District's tendency to place social services and subsidized housing in Historic Anacostia. Residents want to see an the increase in home prices, new restaurants, and a refreshed neighborhood image that investment would foster. They say, it's OK if some of that comes from wealthier residents, moving in, as long as they can be around to enjoy it.

Media coverage of gentrification often frames it a zero-sum class conflict with strong racial and cultural overtones. Academic coverage tends to see it as an inevitable outcome of real estate developers seeking big profits on cheap investments. But studies of whether these theories actually predict demographic changes show a mixed record.

The Bridge Park's Equitable Development Task Force is recommending a different approach. It has avoided the inflammatory language of gentrification, instead honing in on investments now that can prevent the involuntary displacement of current residents in the future.


Features of the Bridge Park will celebrate the area's legacy. Image from OMA/OLIN.

The bridge park can take an innovative approach to change

Scott Kratz, the Bridge Park team's leader, sees the project as a chance for the District government and grassroots activists to cooperate on efforts to help grow a neighborhood that has suffered badly from disinvestment.

The Bridge Park team plans to implement a few of the task force's ideas itself. For example, they want to incubate small retail businesses on the bridge, and making the routes to the park more walkable, so people venture into Anacostia's retail strip.

And while the Bridge Park can't do all that much by way of building new housing or pushing for a legislative overhaul of the District's hiring laws, it can reach out and focus the attention of institutions that are already working on those issues on this specific moment and time.


Anacostia's 13th and W Street SE. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Working with the city, Kratz's team wants to establish a community land trust, connect residents to existing public programs, and put local businesses in any buildings built by the District.

Working with seasoned nonprofit organizations, the team wants to push for more housing in the area, both market-rate and affordable, encourage nonprofit developers, and connect teenagers to mentorships.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

It's a long list, and some goals are bigger than others. But it shows a vision of constructive approaches to the economic changes that have been happening in DC. It may also be a test case for other economic development projects. If the city is serious about using the Wizards practice facility to improve Congress Heights, maybe it could look to the task force's action plan for ways to go beyond just putting the building in a low-income neighborhood.

You can read the full list here. The task force is accepting comments throughout September. It will present its first round of revisions in October 3rd, and a final, more detailed set of strategies on November 5th.

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Public Spaces


Can a park bridging the Anacostia bring investment without displacing residents?

If the plan to build a park over the old 11th Street Bridge comes to fruition, there's no question it will change Anacostia. For now, the people behind the park are working hard to ensure that the people who are there now will be able to stick around to enjoy it.


A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park from the Navy Yard. Image from OMA+OLIN.

The 11th Street Bridge park is a proposal to build a spectacular public space on remaining parts of a disused bridge over the Anacostia River. Having just selected a design this spring, its director Scott Kratz and his team are developing the design, raising money, and running engineering tests. Despite reports that they don't have money, the project is going according to plan.

While waiting to begin construction, Kratz and his team have started to address a big worry many have voiced about the project: the risk that it will spur gentrification east of the Anacostia River, specifically in the HIstoric Anacostia neighborhood.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

This Saturday, a group of real estate experts, planners, and community leaders will present a preliminary plan meant to ensure that the Bridge Park benefits all residents, not just those who can afford to buy in a hot market. Called the Equitable Development Task Force, the group will hold meetings on each side of the river. At both meetings, they'll present a plan and then look to the experience of residents to refine their objectives and methods.

I spoke with Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park's director last week. He said that technical problems like designing and building the park seem simple compared to the challenge of making sure it adds social landscape without displacement and disaffection.

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

Back when the idea of reusing an old highway bridge as a park was just talk, over on the west side of Manhattan, real estate prices were doubling and tripling around the High Line, a park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. In just a few years, the Meatpacking District went from slaughterhouses and sex work to a high end retail district with equally high-end apartment buildings.

Many writers have compared the Bridge Park to the High Line, and while there are some key differences, they share a cultural cachet: they're both infrastructure-reuse projects by fashionable design firms in distinctive locations with attractive, historic neighborhoods nearby.

Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia already have many qualities that make a neighborhood desirable. With a signature project, the market could heat up. Kratz laments that already, two years too early, real estate listings for locations miles away are hyping the unbuilt park as an amenity.

With wealthier residents often come resources, government attention, and more retail. At the same time, the consequences of displacement are serious.

Residences east of the River are overwhelmingly rental, so they can turn over faster, without wealth accruing for renting residents the way it does with homeowners. Unemployment is high. A disproportionate number of residents suffer from diseases associated with poverty, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. Their lives will not get easier if they have to move farther from the city's core, where both mobility and access to social networks is harder.

The problem, with most incidences of gentrification, Kratz says, is that markets are way faster than governments or non-profits. Attempts to freeze rents or rush in new construction always happens too late. Social organizations are left trying to fix problems that are arising faster than they can hope to address them.


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

Unlike a lot of projects, the Bridge Park is well-positioned to be proactive about confronting these problems and ensuring that the project benefits as many people as possible. Officials know more or less when the project will come online, 2017 or 2018, and they know exactly what area it will affect.

Originally, Bridge Park staff focused exclusively on keeping the existing housing affordable. But after meeting with residents from east of the Anacostia River, they realized that that was too narrow a focus.

Now, they've widened the goals to doing a small part in helping nearby communties grow wealthier and more socially connected. The staff want to use the 11th Street Bridge Park to catalyze the amount of affordable housing in the area, increase employment, and promote locally own businesses that keep wealth in the community.

These are huge goals, especially for an organization that exists mostly just to build a park. To meet them, the Bridge Park team is considering possibilities on two levels: measures it can actually take, and ways it can influence things through publicity and connections.

To take action, the Bridge Park needs help from the community

Kratz realizes that neither he nor the Equitable Development Task Force can figure out how to solve a problem like displacement. So, first the Bridge Park team reached out to organizations who have been grappling with these issues in nearby communities organizations for years. Then, they looked at similar projects outside the region, to see if there were any specific lessons for signature parks in mixed-income areas.

The Task Force won't release the full panel until tomorrows's meeting, but Kratz provided some example approaches. Conceptually, they realized they could work at two scales: what the Bridge Park can directly control and what it can only the influence through its publicity and connections.

Kratz concedes the Bridge Park can't control all that much when it comes to affordable housing, But he also says the hope is that his team can unite area political leadership, which could then shape development through community land trusts that assemble equity for below-market housing, renovation assistance to homeowners, and political pressure for public investment.

One example of this kind development the task force will highlight is the extensive affordable housing program spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine.

Kratz says the Bridge Park can work directly on workforce development. The park is effectively a giant green roof that can serve as a training ground for employment in sustainable infrastructure. Related interventions might be the wellness and urban agriculture goals of the park, which could reduce job-impeding health problems.

Finally, the task force has suggestions for fostering local businesses. One is to model the Bridge Park's cafe after Union Market, a space that serves as an incubator for restaurants. The Bridge Park's visibility could launch a small business to commercial self-sustainance without the large capital investments required to start a restaurant.

Kratz notes that these ideas are only small parts of a solution. But, he emphasized that the Bridge Park's ambitions were most likely to succeed when they built on the work community groups were already doing on both sides of the Anacostia.

To be sure, the Bridge Park staff have met with existing organizations and asked how the project can fit into their existing strategies. The staff has also attended community meetings to hear residents' concerns and needs and to learn about how residents live and what they value. The Equitable Development Task Force used this first round of feedback to write this round of ideas and they're now looking for a second round of feedback.

Real estate advisors, landscape architects, and ordinary citizens have their own kind of expertise. Understanding the extent of each and building on it, I think, can be the beginning of a successful, community-led growth into a bigger, broader community. If it works, it can be an example to follow when other signature public projects risk large-scale disruption.

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Parking


Coast Guard employees are using the Anacostia Metro station in a weird way

Metro recently released data showing where Metrorail riders go from each station, and as one of our commenters noted, the most-frequented destination for people traveling from Anacostia is... Anacostia. That's because Coast Guard employees and contractors use the Anacostia Metro as a pedestrian tunnel.


Entrance and exit through the same station by volume in October 2014. Image by the author.

As commenter Andy pointed out, when a passenger enters at Anacostia during midday, afternoon peak, and evenings on weekdays, they're most likely to exit from the same station. Not only that, but as the chart above shows, entering and exiting at the same station is more common at Anacostia than at any other station in the system. Why?

At St. Elizabeths, where the Coast Guard's headquarters moved in 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission's parking policy allows one parking space for every four employees. That means the Coast Guard is limited to only 931 parking spaces for its 4000 federal employees and numerous additional contractor employees.

Unlike at NIH, the St. Elizabeths campus is over a mile walk from the closest Metro, there are no nearby parking lots, and street parking is limited.

The A4 bus, which leaves from the Anacostia Metro bus bay, runs directly to the campus. So many people who work at St. Elizabeths park in the 800-space garage at the Anacostia Metro, tap into the system at the garage entrance so they can walk through the station, and tap out at the exit closer to the bus bay. From there, they take the A4 to work.


The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

It's not hard to understand why commuters might opt to use the Metro station as a pedestrian walkway. While the walk down Howard Road from the parking garage to the bus bay is less than a quarter of a mile, it requires commuters to walk an empty stretch of road, under I-295 and across a highway on and off ramp.


The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

The accidental pedestrian tunnel won't be around for much longer. In the 2014 Coast Guard Transportation Act, Congress overrode the NCPC. Between now and 2017, the Coast Guard will be required to allocate an additional 1,000 parking spaces at St. Elizabeths.

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History


Anacostia’s larger-than-life Big Chair is full of neighborhood history

There's a humongous chair at the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and V Street in Anacostia, named, appropriately, the Big Chair. And while it is quite the spectacle, the Big Chair is also a symbol of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Curtis Brothers Furniture, which sat on what was then Nichols Avenue, built the Big Chair in 1959. Ever since, even when it held the title of biggest chair in the world, it's been a homegrown landmark, out of sight of the monumental core.

Alice in "The Looking Glass House"

To distinguish themselves in the competitive home decor marketplace, the brothers launched a marketing idea that would immortalize them in Anacostia folklore.


A full-page ad ran in the Evening Star on August 12, 1960 advertising "Alice in the Looking Glass House." Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.

On August 13, 1960, amidst the summer's heat and humidity, 21-year old Lynn Arnold began living atop the Big Chair in a 10-by-10 foot glass house complete with a balcony. "See her sleep, eat, exercise and sun bathe, a site you'll remember for years to come," read a full-page advertisement in the Evening Star alluding to the sequel of the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Lynn had been offered the job while shopping at Curtis Brothers.

After 42 days, Arnold came down from "the smallest efficiency apartment in town." She told the Star, "I was in the store buying furniture for my own apartment when they asked me if I'd like the job. I've done a lot of modeling and the pay for this was a great deal."

Throughout her stay atop the big chair, Lynn's husband came to visit, and they often spoke on the phone. Lynn's accommodations included wall-to-wall carpet, TV, radio and a bathroom and shower covered by a wooden wall. In order to eat everyday Lynn lifted her meals up on a tray.

"If I had the same decision to make I still would have done it," Lynn, told a reporter. "But I wouldn't ever do it twice. I was never really lonely. After a day of people staring I was more than ready to close the curtains and be a bit alone."

Upgrades to the Big Chair

Curtis Brothers survived the 1968 riots unscathed (by posting employees outside its doors with shotguns, according to long-time residents), but the business closed its showroom and warehouse in the mid-1970s.

By the early 2000s the original Big Chair, made of mahogany, was deteriorating. Numerous holes in the seat had been patched with concrete, and in August 2005, the original chair was removed.

Eight months later, however, a $40,000 aluminum replica went up in the Big Chair's original location.

A "symbol of hope"

Today, the Big Chair endures as an over-sized emblem of Anacostia. A bar and grill across the street and a now-closed flea market use its namesake, and it nearly got its own ale named after it at Chocolate City Beer.

"Curtis Brothers was the Marlo Furniture of its time, and all sorts of festivities happened around the chair such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny being in the seat during the holidays," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, who as a student at nearby Birney Elementary School recalls taking field trips to the Big Chair.

"It was a sign of economic of progress for the neighborhood, and not just one of the best marketing moves in downtown Anacostia, but maybe in the history of our city," Johnson says.

Anacostia's revitalization has been in the forecast for decades, but it has yet to arrive. The Big Chair is a reminder of the neighborhood's economic potential.

"That chair has endured good times, bad times and good times reborn," Johnson declared. "It is a symbol of hope for this community."

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Education


For one group of kids from Anacostia, a dream deferred is turning into reality

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What's happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child's life trajectory.


Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids "adopted" by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it's not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum's initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the "Dreamers" had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It's clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District's crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers' lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, "Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war."

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn't going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child's life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn't enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn't go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I've written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum's alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they're anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she's pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it's clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he's at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn't be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn't impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green's college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he'll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film's website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn't have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It's impossible to know how the Dreamers' lives would have unfolded if they hadn't been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, "All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They're so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program." For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they'd had more access to things like "a goddamn doctor if they got sick," as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than "a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be."

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?

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History


For whom the bell no longer tolls: Historic Anacostia

Even as we discuss living in space, vestiges of the past are all around us. Neighborhoods are have reclaimed call boxes, named restaurants after area founders, and installed heritage trail markers. Giving history center stage puts life today into proper perspective.


St. Teresa's overlooks a small garden in the rear of the church. Photos by the author.

Centuries before wrist watches or mobile phones helped us keep our schedules or Twitter gave us the news, sextons tolled church bells to tell everyone what time it was. Some churches in downtown Washington still ring their bells today, but in Anacostia, the oldest church bell tolls no more.

Built in 1879 at the corner of Washington & Fillmore Streets (now 13th & V Street SE), Saint Teresa of Avila is the oldest surviving church east of the river.

While the church remains an integral part of the neighborhood's social fabric, a bell in its rear hasn't been struck for years, according to conversations with a number of local residents.

In 1893, 14 yeas after St. Teresa's opened, the congregation acquired a bell so it could tell the community it was holding services. With no place to install the bell atop the church, St. Teresa's built a wooden tower in the rear, and with the aid of horses, a crude winch, and a series of pulleys, raised the bell to the top. The city ruled the wooden tower a fire hazard in 1965, which led to the construction of a concrete and steel bell mount. The bell rests in that mount today.

"In former days bells were endowed with a large measure of personality, and were popularly supposed to be in league with the spirits of the air and other supernatural agencies," reported the New York Times in the late 19th century. "In consequence of such beliefs many of the old cathedral bells in England and on the Continent of Europe have some fine legends or fanciful stories connected with them in which they are made to play the part of good angels or ministering spirits with voices of warning or of hope and cheer to the children of men."


Close up of the church bell in the rear of St. Teresa.

I've heard many stories about the St. Teresa bell over the years. Earlier this year, a nonagenarian fondly recalled to me that as a child, when the lamplighters came around and the evening bell rang at St. Teresa, it was cue to go home. Others have recalled that in early April 1968, the bell rang simultaneously with small-scale riots breaking out on Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road. More recent history agrees that the bell rang up until the mid-1980s and that new church leadership along with noise complaints from some of the neighborhood led to it being discontinued.

"One of the blessings about the Historic District and my block in particular was the abundance of places of worship," writes Angela Copeland, a resident of the 1300 block of W Street SE and administrator of the Great Ward Eight Facebook page. "When I first moved here, there used to be several religious parades conducted by multiple churches including St. Teresa. I don't see them so much anymore. I've visited St. Teresa. It's historic value to the neighborhood and the District's Catholic community cannot be overstated."

With the neighborhood slowly regenerating and being reborn, appeals to Anacostia's history are everywhere—for example, Anacostia was DC's first subdivision as well as the home of Frederick Douglass. As part of Anacostia reclaiming its past, should the bell ring once again?

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