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H.A. Griswold and Anacostia's streetcar story

When the streetcar eventually returns to the Anacostia neighborhood, it will be more than 150 years since the industrious spirit of Henry A. Griswold and his investors developed the first horse-drawn line connecting communities on the east and west sides of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, now known as the Anacostia.

Anacostia's first street car. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington.

The first streetcar since 1962 will soon start running in DC on a 1.1-mile test track the District Department of Transportation has built along South Capitol Street.

During the last 2½ decades of the 19th century, the streetcar in Anacostia ran up and down present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, SE. It brought residential and commercial development to the city's first suburb thanks to Henry A. Griswold, President of the Anacostia & Potomac River Railway Company.

A community "lifeline" is born

"Following the original horsecar line in New York in 1832, a number of more progressive American cities—New Orleans, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago—all had horesecar systems in 1859," writes LeRoy O. King Jr. in the definitive 100 Years of Capital Traction: The Story of Streetcars in the Nation's Capital. "Yet in 1860, Washington's public transit consisted of one line of horsedrawn omnibuses. The omnibuses were nothing more than urban stagecoaches, and, given the condition of early Washington streets, were indeed primitive transit."

During the Civil War, in 1862, the streetcar was introduced to Washington. Nearly 2 decades later the easternmost terminus of the line was at M Street near the Navy Yard, just before the foot of the Eastern Branch Bridge. Those living east of the river had to walk the rest of the way home or catch a carriage ride.

Thus, before Griswold subdivided his Anacostia property in what would become known as Griswold's Addition, he knew that he first had to build a streetcar over the river, ensuring a critical lifeline to the neighborhood to spur growth.

In February 1875, a prospectus of the Anacostia and Potomac River Railway Company (A&P), chartered by Congress, was distributed throughout Washington and in Griswold's native state of Connecticut. The line began running within the neighborhood later that year.

The A&P grows but hits an obstacle

When Frederick Douglass and his family moved to Anacostia in the waning months of 1877, the neighborhood gained an advocate of national consequence. Douglass was an investor in the streetcar line and lobbied Congress on Griswold's behalf. In 1880, Douglass sent a letter to Senator George F. Edmunds, an advocate of the city's development, adding his support for the an extension of the Anacostia route.

The A&P ran 2.9 miles of track over the Eastern Branch Bridge, rebuilt in 1874, then horizontally back and forth past the Navy Yard to the Southwest waterfront. There, it connected with the Metropolitan line, which ran vertically up and down 7th Street Northwest. Other lines reached the city limits in all directions with the 3 other extant street railway companies of Washington & Georgetown, Capitol, and Columbia.

Map of 1880 Street Railways. Image from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

By 1887 the A&P had run for 8 years from 7th & M Streets SW to the grounds of the US Government Insane Asylum, now the planned headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths. Griswold now sought to expand his route into the heart of the city, but the District Commissioners worried about "the unnecessary multiplication of railroad tracks" downtown.

The commissioners sought increased oversight and influence over streetcar lines. In a letter, they said:

[T]he commissioners should have some lawful jurisdiction and direction of the operation of the roads; that the affirmative petition of property-owners upon the line of the proposed routes should be obtained; that a certain proportion of the proceeds of the business of the roads be paid into the District treasury, and that the details of construction, including the pattern of rail and the method of paving the inner-train and inter-rail spaces, should be subject to approval of the commissioners.
Using facts, figures and a chart, Griswold went before the city commissioners in the summer of 1890 to advocate for an extension of the A&P route. Flush with cash after the company carried more than an estimated 800,000 passengers the previous year and a "rapidly increasing population" along the A&P route, Griswold wanted the line to connect "with other companies in the center of the city, so as to transport their passengers to such parts as the City Hall, the Center Market, and the business houses on F Street and Pennsylvania avenue between Sixth and Tenth streets northwest."

"Road Side Sketches of Anacostia," Evening Star, Dec 5, 1891. Looking up present-day MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photo Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Circulating throughout the city in the spring of 1893 were ten thousand illustrated pamphlets Griswold printed and mailed promoting places of interest in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each pamphlet held a coupon for one free ride over the Anacostia road. At the time the A&P had 52 cars and 230 horses running over 8.5 miles of track which now extended through Capitol Hill.

In the coming years investors would favor electrification over the horse-drawn system. "As the decade wore on, the argument turned from the idea of equipping each car with two horses to the idea of compressed air motors and finally to an underground electric system," King writes in Capital Traction.

Griswold maintains control

When Frederick Douglass passed away at his Anacostia home on February 20, 1895 Griswold lost both a friend and long-time business partner. Douglass held considerable stock in the A&P at the time of his death. Less than a month later, Griswold denied reports that a syndicate of the Philadelphia Traction Co., Baltimore Traction Co., and local Belt Company and Eckington Soldier's Home line was making an offer to buy the A&P and its valuable charter which included rights to extend west to 14th & Pennsylvania Avenue and as far east as the Maryland border.

Griswold continued to maintain control of the A&P despite labor unrest, citizen complaints, and a preponderance of fare evasions. In January 1897 he submitted a report of the receipts and expenditures of his company to the US Senate. In the previous year the road carried 1,127,562 passengers amounting to revenue of $164,762.06. Salary and wages totaled more than $23,500 along with $12,205.59 for hay, feed, and straw, $1,796 for track maintenance, $832.54 for shoeing horses, and other costs including interest payments of nearly $1,900.

Griswold's last years & legacy

Griswold finally ceded control of the A&P in an equity suit in 1899 to the Washington Railway and Electric Company. Under new management the A&P fully began the process of electrifying its route from Florida Avenue to the foot of the Insane Asylum. (A shuttle then continued up the hill to Congress Heights.) On May 26, 1900 the A&P's electrification was complete.

Griswold had by now disposed of his property and retired to his mansion on Mount View Place in Anacostia. In late March 1909 Griswold reportedly told a neighbor (whose home was demolished last year) that he was feeling ill. After shopping downtown Mrs. Griswold returned home in the late afternoon on March 30. Her husband was nowhere to be found in the house.

The body of the former president of the A&P was discovered in a disused attic. He had been shot through the heart and had been dead for some time, a local physician concluded. Police on the scene found mysterious circumstances, but the coroner eventually ruled the death a suicide.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Griswold was the principal businessman in Anacostia. He served as postmaster, developed entire blocks with new housing, and lobbied Congress for his neighborhood's interests which included more police, paved streets, and a firehouse. Before his untimely self-inflicted death at the age of 63, Griswold was instrumental to growing the city's first subdivision, guiding its cross-town streetcar for more than 2 decades in the last quarter of the 19th century.


Fire deaths in abandominium raise call for action

Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.

Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.

"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.

What happened at 1704 R Street SE?

Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.

Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.

A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.

Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.

"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.

"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."

I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"

Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."

According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."

Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.

With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant

Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.

Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."

The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:

SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:
  • Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
  • The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
  • The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
City needs help reporting abandominiums

Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.

"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.

Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.

"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.


Barry Farm street names reflect post-Civil War history

For denizens of the Barry Farm community in Southeast Washington, the 19th century still holds strong at the corner—Charlie's Corner store. The neighborhood's street names memorialize Union generals and Radical Republicans who advanced the rights of black Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Zabia Dews, the "Mayor of Barry Farm," outside Charlie's Corner store at the junction of Sumner and Wade Roads SE. Photo by the author.

"Look up at these street names," says Zabia Dews, 63, of the 2700 block of Wade Road SE, pointing to signs above for the junction of Sumner Road SE and Wade Road SE. "There's a history here people don't know about, or they forgot. We can't let it disappear."

The original names remain today: Howard Road SE, which runs past the Anacostia Metro Station, for General Oliver Otis Howard; Sumner Road SE for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner; Wade Road SE for Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade; Pomeroy Road SE for Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, an early member of Howard University's Board of Trustees; and Stevens Road SE for Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, prominently featured in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

The James Barry farm

In 1801 the board of commissioners of the embryonic capital city wrote to the principal landholders "asking to be furnished with lists of lots sold by them." Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, Notley Young, a prominent plantation owner, and more than a dozen other men including James Barry, "one of the incorporators of the Washington Canal Company," received the letter.

"Mr. Barry was largely invested in business, both foreign and domestic, and he was very zealous as an advocate of the interests of the eastern section of the city, in opposition to the claims of the western section," according to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Map of East Washington, circa 1870s. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

More than 60 years later, in April 1864, the surveyor of Washington County (all land in the District east of the Potomac, outside of the L'Enfant Plan and Georgetown) was "instructed to stone the new road between the northwest and southwest boundaries of the Barry Farm, known as the Stickfoot Branch road," reported the Daily National Republican.

In September young men were drafted off the farm to fill President Lincoln's call for a half million more Union troops. By now the Barry Farm, across the Eastern Branch from the Washington Navy Yard, was sandwiched between the United States Government Hospital for the Insane (Saint Elizabeths) which saw its first patient in 1855 and Uniontown (Anacostia), the city's first subdivision.

At this time, during the Civil War, the city was brimming with "the floating colored population" of runaway slaves from "Maryland, Virginia, and farther South," according to General Oliver Otis Howard's autobiography. In 1865 Howard became Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency established to aid freed slaves and their families.

General Oliver Otis Howard. Photo from the Library of Congress.
Riding through congested areas of Washington north of K Street, between 13th and 17th, Howard came upon a large group of freedmen.

"What would make you self-supporting?" asked Howard.

"Land! Give us land!" several replied.

In the spring of 1867, Howard used $52,000 in Freedmen's Bureau funds to purchase all 375 acres of the Barry Farm. He sold 1- and 2-acre lots. Within 2 years, 266 families called Barry Farm home, including the sons of Frederick Douglass.

Old Barry Farm develops

"The land all the time was constantly inquired for by working freedmen," Howard recalled. "It was taken with avidity, and the monthly payments, with very few exceptions, were promptly and regularly made. The prospect to the freedmen of owning a homestead was a great stimulus to exertion." A schoolhouse for 150 pupils was quickly erected. Barry Farm was a self-sufficient, self-contained community.

An 1894 Hopkins map (plate 34) of Barry Farm shows streets names still in currency today. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Today, Barry Farm is almost exclusively associated with the faded 26-acre Barry Farm Dwellings, a 432-unit (nearly a third vacant) property of the DC Housing Authority. The name association hasn't always been that way, says Dews, known as the "Mayor of Barry Farm" for his familial roots on Wade Road SE for nearly a century and his mentorship of neighborhood youth. "It's been a long time since we've been a tribe. But that's what we were and it's important for the younger generation to know this history."

As the city restarts its redevelopment planning process for Barry Farm Dwellings, at an estimated cost of $400 million over a timeline of two decades, the Barry Farm Resident Council, with assistance from Empower DC and local activists, has communicated to the DC Housing Authority that alongside issues of public safety, displacement and employment, a heritage preservation plan is a key concern. 140 years ago, Barry Farm residents and the city were similarly at odds.

According to the Baltimore Sun's Washington correspondent writing in the summer of 1872, "The board of public works propose to open streets in the village and as the residents there have each a deed of one acre of land for his cottage, they are not disposed to surrender any portion of their homesteads for streets or anything else without compensation." When a contractor "appeared in the village to cut up the lots, he was beset, the horses taken from the street plows, the wagons upset, and the laborers driven away. In the afternoon the work was begun under the protection of the police."

Then as now, self-preservation and kinfolk survival is the indigenous creed of Barry Farm, Dews says. "These street names are what's left of the tribe that represented the hard work and sacrifice necessary to build families and businesses. We need to get back to the old way of living."


Will economic renewal reach Anacostia in 2013?

Farm vehicles no longer have their own parking privileges in Historic Anacostia. A weathered sign offering them special treatment is now gone; a new perimeter fence and fresh asphalt recently appeared on a site where, in 2008, a developer envisioned a $500-700 million mixed-use project.

The 2200 block of MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photos by the author.

Vacant storefronts, social service providers, treatment centers, art galleries, city government agencies, carry-outs and liquor stores, barber shops and beauty salons, cash checking spots and branch banks, small contractors and creative class incubators, a coffeehouse-bar hybrid and a progressive radio station roughly define Anacostia's commercial strip. A flower shop and faded grocery store recently shuttered.

By spring, new management plans to open a restaurant in former Uniontown Bar & Grill space. The Anacostia Playhouse, leaping across the river from H Street NE, will pull back its curtains in a former training center on Shannon Place SE.

Through fits and starts, more than 5 years after President Obama spoke nearby on his way to becoming the first black President (although widely reported as being in Anacostia, Obama spoke at THEARC, a short walk from the Southern Avenue Metro), Ward 8's Anacostia remains on the periphery of the city's economic renewal.

Will the neighborhood, more than 2 decades after its own Metro station opened, finally begin to attract sustained investment this year?

Can new retail take root?

A sleepy Sunday morning in Anacostia.

What happens to the former Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket at 14th and Good Hope Road SE will demonstrate if the neighborhood economy can move from government-subsidized service delivery, such as a dialysis center and childcare, to support places of commerce such as a restaurant, bookstore, hardware store and grocery.

The former Yes! Organic Market, now the Fairlawn Market, over on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Ward 7, has endured many struggles, perpetuating the perception of the area as being a difficult market for retail. (Chipotle turned down free rent in 2010 to serve as the anchor tenant on the ground floor of The Grays, where the Fairlawn Market is.)

The corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, July 2011.

Ground zero in historic Anacostia remains Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the same corner where John Wilkes Booth met Davy Herold on his escape to southern Maryland. In the summer of 2011, renderings were released that teased at the intersection's potential. Since that time, despite the backing of Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and other city agency heads, no development of note has happened at the corner.

A public art installation has been planned for nearly a year; it would replace an art installation that was previously torn down. The waiting game continues.

Stanley Jackson, now head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, predicted in 2005 when he was Mayor Williams' Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that Anacostia would be "one of the hottest markets in the city" by now. Not yet.

In 2008 the Department of Housing and Community Development, whose signs adorn dozens of vacant properties in the neighborhood, moved into the $18 million Anacostia Gateway development at the northeast corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Initial plans were to relocate the city's Department of Transportation here but that did not materialize.

Across the street from Anacostia Gateway, the iconic "ANACOSTIA" neon sign continues to light up a corner that at night is an economic dead zone.

Anacostia's Business Improvement District is slowly coming to life; the pop-up arts festival LUMEN8Anacostia will return this June and storefront renovations are planned to begin in the coming months. In December of this year will Anacostia's BID have more members than it does now?

1300 block of Valley Place SE; preservation and demolition by neglect

To walk the residential streets of the city's first sub-division is to see up close and personal a shining example of preservation and regeneration next-door to an eyesore of demolition by neglect and neighborhood decay. On the 1300 block of Valley Place SE five homes remain that were developed in the mid-1880s by real estate investor and president of the local streetcar line, Henry A. Griswold.

1300 block of Valley Place SE in Historic Anacostia.

Over the past few weeks the exterior of 1328 Valley Place SE has been fully renovated, in part through a popular grant program coordinated by the Office of Planning that targets 14 Historic Districts citywide. Next door, 1326 Valley Place SE, is one of the properties DHCD owns. The crumbling building is literally going to seed, as nature attempts to reclaim what's left.

According to tax records, 1326 was sold in 2005 at a foreclosure auction for a throw over $2,000. Local residents provided documents in 2011 from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs indicating that Darwin Trust Properties, LLC acquired the property at that time.

Darwin Trust's CEO was incarcerated while the city pursued legal action against the company under the demolition by neglect statute. Through the litigation, the city was able to get a court order to let DCRA abate the property. After half a decade of further deterioration, the city finally bought the property in a November 2011 foreclosure sale for just under $12,000. According to a 2013 preliminary tax assessment, the land is worth $116,410 and the total value of the property is $118,520.

Based on the valuations alone, the city got a steal, purchasing the property for less than 10 percent of its assessed value. But the time to take advantage of this bargain is running short. The 2013 assessment is down nearly 15% from the 2011 value of $135,900, as the building continues to crumble.

Given the home's historic character, we can hope the city finds a way to restore what's left and continue to rejuvenate this old street in Historic Anacostia.

Abandominiums abide

Keeping a watchful eye on the vacant properties around her youth center, Hannah Hawkins has seen hundreds of squatters come and go in and out of the surrounding abandominiums over the 2 decades she and her volunteers have supported the community from 2263 Mount View Place SE. On a recent morning Hawkins caught a woman going into the Southeast Neighborhood House. Hawkins asked what she was doing. "I'm looking for artifacts," the trespasser announced before Hawkins chased her off.

The Southeast Neighborhood House, organized to combat poverty is now an "abandominium."

The portfolio of abondominiums in the neighborhood is well-known both throughout circles of the city's chronic homeless as well as real estate agents, developers and city officials. While housing prices continue to rise across the city, in Anacostia they have remained flat. Abondominiums shelter the homeless and criminal class for free while suppressing property values and property tax revenues for the city.

Big K site, 2234 & 2238 MLK Jr. Ave SE.

After demolishing 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE last year, DHCD selected a developer for the Big K site. According to a press release, plans are to "construct a new office building that features commercial and retail space, as well as restore the existing historic houses on the site." Time will tell when this block, first developed by coach painter James Beall in the early 1880s, finally comes back to life.

The real estate site DC Curbed recently featured listings for 8 condos, townhouses and single family homes in the neighborhood and nearby. Asking prices topped out at $229,000 with a low of $43,000 for a condo in Barry Farm.

On the fringes of each end of the Anacostia Historic District are multi-unit residential complexes, the Bruxton Condos and a cluster of 3 vacant apartments on High Sreet SE, whose development has been too long in coming. While most eyes are focused on Anacostia's exterior, its commercial strip, the interior, the integrity of its housing stock, continues to be endangered.

Based on responses the city received at a handful of Ward 8 summits and town halls in recent years, cleaning up existing vacant residential and commercial properties is a top concern of citizens, taking precedent over new development. Multiple reports released over the years by city government and think tanks list strategies to deal with the area's blight, but if there's been any implementation of these methods, the blight largely remains. A 2004 study noted, "The area's combination of natural beauty, waterfront access, transportation resources and cultural heritage is unrivaled in the city, however, it is important as well to note challenges in existing conditions."

Now that the days of old Anacostia's farm vehicles are bygone, can the neighborhood move beyond the limitations of its past and attract new residential and commercial investment?


Where could a small grocery store thrive in Ward 8?

The Yes! Organic Market in DC's Fairlawn neighborhood has struggled to survive, and Anacostia's only grocery store recently closed. Why can't grocery stores thrive here? Mainly, economics. But one spot could work.

There are many factors that determine the success of a retail enterprise, including marketing, accessibility, visibility, competition, demographics, and location. Yes! Organic may have been difficult to access for westbound drivers, and it could certainly have benefited from an improved outreach campaign, but the fundamental challenge for the store is that it is located in an area with low aggregate income, a result of relatively low household incomes and the presence of relatively few households.

Much of the area around Fairlawn's Yes! is undeveloped (Anacostia Park and River, Fort Dupont Park, etc.), and the developed blocks are low- to medium-density. The graphic above helps illustrate how the purchasing power the store's service area compares with those of other grocery outlets in the city.

The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket closed its doors because the former owner sold the property. The buyer is optimistic about the site's potential, but in a presentation to the Historic Anacostia Block Association in February of this year, he all but ruled out the possibility of bringing in another grocery store. He said that the potential grocery tenants he spoke with were deterred by the presumed arrival of Walmart at Skyland, just up the street.

Does the eventual presence of two full-service grocery stores at the top of the hill mean that Ward 8's flatland neighborhoods will be forever without their own market? If there is a location best suited for a store to fill the gap, it is at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE and Howard Rd SE, immediately adjacent to the Anacostia Metrorail station and Metrobus hub, and the meeting point for the Anacostia, Hillsdale, and Barry Farm neighborhoods.

The ideal, and most feasible, site for new development at this intersection is the vast lot owned by Bethlehem Baptist Church, currently used as parking. It is not uncommon for churches, often major landowners, to develop the land they own for a purpose consistent with their mission.

Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, two blocks from Bethlehem, recently oversaw the development of a new affordable housing complex on one of their parcels. Across town, at 10th and G Streets NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was part of a redevelopment team that delivered a new facility for the church on the ground floors of an office building.

Bethlehem Baptist lot. Photo by the author.

By developing their vacant land as housing, office space, or a community or spiritual facility, with ground floor retail including a grocery store to replace the shuttered Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and its pastor Reverend James E. Coates, DC's inaugural Ward 8 councilmember, could cement a legacy in the District while doing a huge service to their neighbors in the heart of Ward 8.

Cross-posted at R. U. Seriousing Me?


Who’s commuting to east of the river DC neighborhoods?

WMATA's latest data release confirmed what we already knew: most Metrorail riders take the train from the suburbs into DC. But relatively few ride to the District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Where are they coming from and going to?

About 75% of total trips in the AM peak terminate at one of the 42 stations in or immediately adjacent to the District (within 500 feet). Only 2% of these riders, or 1.5% of all trips, get off at one of the 7 stations in or bordering the portion of the District east of the Anacostia River.

Of the more than 3500 riders who make up the numerator of this statistic, 40% get off at Anacostia and 20% at Minnesota Ave, affectionately known as the downtowns of their respective wards (8 and 7). The reason nearly 5 times as many people take the train to Farragut North as to all East of the River stations combined is obvious: Land use.

The Anacostia and Minnesota Ave station areas offer fairly similar non-residential uses, which include a limited number of destinations one would commute to on a weekday morning. Both have a few schools nearby, one relatively new District government office building, a smattering of small retail stores and restaurants, mostly carryout, and a number of light industrial sites.

Anacostia has a couple additional office or medical buildings, while Minnesota Ave boasts a grocery store. For those who do commute to work or school in these neighborhoods, parking is cheap or free, and buses often offer a superior option to rail for those who are traveling between East of the River neighborhoods.

But what about the chosen few who do take Metrorail to these 7 stations? In contrast to the system-wide statistics, 63% of trips ending east of the river originated in DC, 28% in Maryland, and 9% in Virginia. The share coming from the suburbs is certain to increase when the federal Department of Homeland Security campus at Saint Elizabeths is completed.

Interestingly, 9% of riders traveling East of the River boarded at the Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations. Without additional data, one can only hypothesize why so many people (relatively) are making this specific commute. One driver may be the schools. For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high performing public charter high school across the street from the Anacostia metro station, draws students and teachers from all over the city.

Perhaps WMATA could release a subset of their data showing trips made with discounted student passes? That would make it possible to further explore this hypothesis.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?


Cemeteries east of the river have rich histories

"There's a good probability if you dig anywhere in DC that's been undisturbed you will uncover evidence of human remains," says Paul Sluby, genealogist and historian of DC's cemeteries past and present.

Headstones at the Adas Israel Congregation Cemetery, adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station. Photo by the author.

The first known cemeteries on land that would become the District of Columbia were family plots on farms throughout the Maryland countryside. East of the river, these family graveyards, along with congregation graveyards beside some of the area's first churches, are the oldest known cemeteries.

An 1889 article in the Evening Star mentions an "ancient church and cemetery, on the road from Anacostia to Benning" that has since been lost to time.

Over parts of five decades, Sluby's research has identified more than 30 private, public, military, chapel, and government-sponsored burial grounds east of the river.

Some of the earliest sites were for the Wood family of Anacostia, the Deans of Deanwood, and the Bells of the present-day Benning Road area. These family plots date back to the years immediately after the Civil War.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, subdivisions were planned and developed beyond the city's historic core, transforming what had once been bucolic and pastoral land. In the early summer of 1852, Washington's City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited any new burial grounds within the Boundary Street (today Florida Avenue) limits of L'Enfant's plan, according to Steven J. Richardson's article "The Burial Grounds of Black Washington: 1880—1919" in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Existing cemeteries east of the river

Of the more than 250 public and private cemeteries documents show have interred Washingtonians for over 2 centuries, 22 remain, according to the DC Historic Preservation Office. More than a half dozen are found east of the river: Woodlawn Cemetery on Benning Road, a clustering of Jewish Cemeteries in Congress Heights, and the Saint Elizabeths Hospital Civil War Cemetery, on a hillside slope on the West campus that can be seen from I-295.

Seeing its first patient in 1855, during the Civil War, the United States Government Hospital for the Insane swelled with patients. "Many of the battlefield victims received at St. Elizabeths Hospital were dead on arrival, and others, too seriously wounded to be saved, died in the hospital," Sluby writes in Bury me deep: Burial places past and present in and nearby Washington, D.C. "These deaths necessitated the establishment of a hospital burying area for these causalities."

In more than 20 rows of head stones rest the remains of nearly 300 Civil War dead, both Confederate and Union, black and white soldiers alongside local civilians. According to a historic marker, "When the foliage of the local forest subsides in winter, the cemetery is visible from a considerable distance since the white headstones are placed in the form of a cross."

Old Jewish cemeteries

The presence of Jewish burials in southeast Washington dates back to the 1860s, when the first internments interments were made off Hamilton Road, now Alabama Avenue SE. More than 150 years later, the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Adas Israel Congregation maintain their cemeteries adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station and Malcolm X Elementary School on the 1400 block of Alabama Avenue SE.

Ohey Sholom Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah Cemetery. Photo by the author.

Tucked behind Adas Israel and Washingtin Hebrew are two additional Jewish graveyards on 15th Place SE, bordering the Henson Ridge development. Ohey Sholom Talmud Torah Cemetery purchased its land in 1895, according to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Its neighbor cemetery, Elesavetgrad, which sold plots to fraternal organizations, is named for a town in Russia.

In recent months, the caretaker's house at the Washington Hebrew Memorial Park has been refurbished and a new visitor's center has been built. The cemeteries are open on Jewish holidays and to the public by appointment.

Woodlawn Cemetery

Volunteers with members of the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association at a clean up of Woodlawn in September 2010. Photo by the author.

Off the 4600 block of Benning Road NE rests Blanche K. Bruce, the first black American to serve a full-term in the United States Senate, pioneering lawyer at Howard Law School and United States Congressman from Virginia, John Mercer Langston, a chronicler of black authors and history for nearly a half-century at the library of Congress, Daniel A. P. Murray, and leading physicians, educators, and pastors of 19th and early 20th century Washington.

According to an independent study by the DC Department of Environmental Services, there were 35,895 internments interments at Woodlawn from 1895 through June 17, 1971. Woodlawn received its last burial in 2000. In recent years the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association, led by Tyrone General, has advocated that the city transform the 22.5-acre cemetery into a living history park to "honor our ancestors."

Lost cemeteries

More than one third of the cemeteries in the 1909 Boyd's City Directory of Washington, DC are east of the Anacostia River. Recorded, but no longer surviving, are the Macedonia Cemetery in Hillsdale, Good Hope Cemetery on Hamilton Road, Jones Chapel Cemetery on Benning Road, and Payne's Cemetery on Benning Road, on ground where the Fletcher Johnson Education Complex stands today.

1903 Baist Map shows Woodlawn Cemetery and Payne's Cemetery across from each other on Benning Road SE. Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Along with Woodlawn, Payne's Cemetery buried predominantly black Washingtonians. Reports of the Health Commissioner to the District's Board of Commissioners in the 1880s indicate the first activity at Payne's Cemetery. Official records confirm that from 1880 to 1930 there were 10,951 internments at Payne's Cemetery. Of that number, only 29 were white. In the 1960s the remains of the buried at Payne's were transferred to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George's County.

The Historic Preservation Office has just released a brochure, Gone But Not Forgotten: Cemeteries in the Nation's Capital, that explores the history of burials in Washington, from Native Americans through the Colonial era and early development of the new Federal City, and into the Romantic age of highly-designed garden cemeteries. The brochure is available at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library or online.


See DC from east of the river

Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River. As we approach a new round of debates over the height limit, it's important to understand the contemporary and historic value of these astonishing sight lines.

View from atop Cedar Hill, the former home of Frederick Douglass. Photos by the author.

Views from the campuses of Cardozo High School in Northwest and McKinley Technology High School in Northeast cannot compare to those from Saint Elizabeths' West Campus. The panorama of the sunset from atop Cedar Hill, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the foreground, is surreal.

Despite the current stigma of many east of the river neighborhoods, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Buena Vista (Spanish for "good view"), Bellevue (French for "beautiful view") Fairlawn, Fort Stanton, and Hillsdale have a romantic naturalism that has been recognized in literature and paintings since the early 19th century.

Last week, Congressman Issa (R-CA) and Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) announced a study to re-examine the 1910 law which limits the height of buildings in Washington. There are strong, well-reasoned arguments to both maintain and revise the law. In that study, the National Capital Planning Commission is very concerned about preserving views of the monumental core from across the city.

1834 view of the Washington Navy Yard & US Capitol. Image from the Library of Congress.

In March 1873, 12 years before the Washington Monument was finally finished, Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science waxed poetic about the sight lines:

"A stranger visiting the national capital should begin by leaving it. He should cross the Anacostia River at the Navy-yard, climb the heights behind the village of Uniontown, be careful to find exactly the right path, and seat himself on the parapet of old Fort Stanton.

His feeling of fatigue will be overcome by one of astonishment that the scene should contain so much that is beautiful in nature, so much that is exceedingly novel if not very good in art, and so much that has the deepest historical interest. From the blue hills of Prince George's county in Maryland winds the Anacostia, whose waters at his feet float all but the very largest vessels of our navy, while but six miles above they float nothing larger than a Bladensburg goose. To the left flows the Potomac, a mile wide. Between the rivers lies Washington.

A vast amphitheatre, its green or gray walls cloven only by the two rivers, appears to surround the city. 'Amphitheatre' is the word, for within the great circle, proportioned to it in size and magnificence, dwarfing all other objects, stands the veritable arena where our public gladiators and wild beasts hold their combats. This of course is the Capitol, whose white dome rises like a blossoming lily from the dark expanse below.

View of the Capitol Dome from the bluff of Saint Elizabeths' West Campus.

In form and feeling the symbols of federal Washington yield aesthetic and therapeutic influence on the east side of town. Across the other side of the deep divide of the river is where the political influence is felt and permeates daily life. East of the river you can feel the literal sense of geographic disengagement and detachment from official Washington. There's a sense of pride in this disconnection. Life still moves slowly here. The historic development of the community personifies this truth.

In 1855 the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed Saint Elizabeths, saw its first patient. The palatial landscape situated high on a bluff overlooked the Washington Navy Yard and the first efforts to erect the modern cast iron Capitol Dome, that now defines the city skyline. For the first inmates and staff, alike, the scene was as palliative then as it is today.

View of the Washington Monument from atop Howard Road SE.

Ascending Howard Road SE, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, the Washington Monument, illuminated at night, is the sentry keeping a vigilant eye over the "southside". Over on Morris Road SE is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, known to the go-go community as the Panorama Room. The name is purposeful, from here the entire city unfolds before your eyes, revealing itself. In the award-winning independent movie, "Slam," actor Saul Williams ponders his existence and future as a low-level drug dealer from this sweeping indigenous veranda.

View of the Capitol Dome from 15th Street SE in Historic Anacostia.

Down in historic Anacostia, the Statue of Freedom, crowning the Capitol Dome, has watched over folks of this inner-city suburban village with village folk watching right back for nearly 150 years. Whether on foot, peddle, bus, or car, formerly on horseback, carriage, and streetcar, glimpses of the Capitol often flash in and out of the periphery between buildings, alleys, and fences.

As feasibility studies and further analysis of the city's height limit moves forward, we hope the character of these vistas are protected and not ignored in favor of political calculus and economic expediency.


Vacant Congress Heights building holds relics of the past

"Look at that thing! That's an antique!" says William Alston-El as two workers in yellow vests and hard hats emerge from the long-vacant Wilson Courts in Congress Heights. The men carry an aged band saw.

Workers take a 19th century band saw from the Wilson Courts. Photo by the author.

"Man, I've been working with tools my entire life and I've never seen anything like that," Alston-El observes with reverence as we angle for a closer look.

"That has to be from Saint Elizabeths. We're nothing but a couple blocks over," Alston-El says. "There are probably tools, medical equipment, diaries, and who knows what else that's been lost in this community and still hasn't been found. Who knew Ward 8 is filled with hidden treasures?"

An innovation of the early 19th century, the band saw could cut both wood and metal. Its original design is little altered today, albeit with current materials. More than one hundred variations of the modern band saw sell today at Home Depot from companies such as DeWalt, Steel City, and Rockwell.

The band saw.

The former Wilson Courts, 523-525 Mellon Street SE, a 4-story multi-family apartment complex with a faint art deco touch outside the building's two respective front entrances, was sold in September 2008 to Affordable Housing Opportunities Inc. for just under $1.5 million, according to tax records. (The value of the building's inventory of antiques is unavailable.)

A year later a firestorm broke out within Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C when a local non-profit introduced plans to develop transitional housing units. Many old-time residents joined neophyte arrivals in opposing the plans, arguing the neighborhood was over-burdened with similar facilities and a further concentration of social service agencies would do more harm than good.

The vacant Wilson Courts at 523 - 525 Mellon Street SE. Photo by the author.

Now, a couple years later all seems to be forgotten as the building has remained uninhabited. Per the permit posted by the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs since February, after demolition of interior walls, there are plans to convert the building's existing 20 units to 43.

However, before redevelopment happens an untold number of relics from late 19th and early 20th centuries remain in the basement, according to the demolition crew's foreman.

Together with the 6-man crew, William and I speculate what the band saw might be worth—not just for scrap parts, but to collectors of antiquarian tools. The foreman thinks it could bring a couple hundred dollars. Weschler's, the long-time downtown auction house, could probably help with an estimate, I suggest.

An engraving around the arc of the base will surely provide clues of its provenance for an appraiser specializing in 19th century tools. (Comparable antique band saws on Ebay list for $250 to $500, often selling for more.)

Through preservation groups and local media work, I have toured the campuses of Saint Elizabeths a handful of times over the past 3 years. What little I have seen of the abandoned halls, rooms, basketball courts, and book cases show most of the remnants of the past are gone, cleared out over the years by former employees and recent contractors.

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