Little-known Bladensburg park an oasis for residents, wildlife

September 13, 2011

This story is one of four written by high school students who participated in The Washington Post’s 2011 Digital Workshop for Young Journalists, each with a corresponding video.

Through Prince George’s County and Washington runs the Anacostia River, a body of water so notorious for its pollution that some local residents refer to it as “that dirty river.” In Prince George’s the river runs through the Bladensburg Waterfront Park, a jarringly serene oasis in an urban area near the District border.

Because of the runoff from city streets and the overflow from local sewage plants, the Anacostia River is ripe with contamination. According to a 2011 report from D.C. Appleseed, a District public policy nonprofit, a mix of polluted storm water and raw sewage enters the Anacostia 75 times a year, totaling two billion gallons of contaminants.

However, that has very little effect on tourism, says Eian Jackson, who is finishing his third summer as a Bladensburg Waterfront Park employee.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the pollution, so people just freely come out,” Jackson said. “I mean, obviously people aren’t swimming in the river, they’re not going that far, but they’re just coming and enjoying the river.”

Jackson’s involvement with the park began as a child; his family used to canoe there. His mother, a science teacher who takes her students on field trips to the park, suggested he pursue his interest in science and the environment through a job there.

Jackson’s responsibilities include leading the pontoon boat tours, helping with park maintenance and renting out the park’s pavilion, canoes and kayaks.

“It’s like the epitome of a summer job,” said Jackson, who during the rest of the year is a health and music teacher at a public charter school in the District.

Despite pollution problems, the park is bursting with catfish, bass, snapping turtles, snow egrets, great blue herons and other native wildlife. In fact, the urban environment of Bladensburg could not be more different from what visitors experience as soon as they enter the park.

Despite the welcome break that the park provides from the surrounding urban area, the park has remained little-known locally, Jackson said.

“I’ve seen that a lot of tourists more so come here, because a lot of people who live around here, they don’t even know about this park,” he said.

It was not always like that, however. The river was considered a vital part of the national landscape in the early days of the United States. During the War of 1812, the waterfront was home to an essential port, and a defeat of American forces there led to the infamous Burning of Washington in 1814. Even earlier, the Nacotchtank Native Americans relied on the river for their livelihood.

“They were the ones who came up with the name Anacostia, which means ‘great river of trade,’ ” explained Jackson.

Though the river’s significance has waned since then, the public is becoming more aware of Bladensburg Waterfront Park. Its neighbors are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and the National Arboretum, and an eight-mile trail is being built from the park to nearby Anacostia National Park. Jackson anticipates that there will be more visitors to the park in the future, although he prefers the serenity of the park’s low profile.

“People are going to find out about it sooner or later, but I like it the way it is,” he said.

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