On Friday, a group of local teenagers pitched their ideas for how the city could create a public space on the bridge that would draw people from the two deeply divided sides of the river. The park could include playgrounds, shady benches overlooking the water, shops, fountains and a stage where audiences could watch plays or listen to gospel or go-go music.
The river has always been a stark dividing line between Anacostia, a predominantly black neighborhood with a rich history and high unemployment, and Capitol Hill, a place bustling with congressmen, lobbyists and more white residents.
“People stay in their zone,” said Darius McKnight, a 19-year-old who is working in the city’s summer jobs program.
“It’s always been, ‘You’re over there, and we’re over here,’ ” a co-worker, William Omorogieva, said.
Or worse: “One side is messed up and one side is doing okay,” said Michael Washington, 17, who lives in Anacostia.
But Terence Nicholson, an artist who is helping the teenagers come up with plans and who has lived in Anacostia most of his life, said, “This area and Capitol Hill are what I would call the essence of Washington.”
With so many people in the city from other places, living here a short time then moving away, “and so many neighborhoods remixed and remodeled, a lot of the city is trying to define itself,” he said.
“This area to me is a more concentrated flavor of Washington, D.C.,” with families going back generations in the same neighborhood, said Nicholson, who loves Anacostia’s arts scene and go-go culture. Still, as long as he can remember, “People leave here to work across the bridge and come home to live.”
When the D.C. Planning Office, working with THEARC arts center in Southeast Washington, asked a small group of teenagers from the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program who had been working in related city agencies to help architects, engineers, historians and community leaders come up with ideas for a bridge park that could help unite the city, most of them were skeptical.
“At first, I wasn’t so sold on the idea,” Omorogieva said. “I didn’t know if people would really use it.”
But they started coming up with ideas. They heard the comments that came out of neighborhood meetings. And people walking by the empty gallery space they have been using for the two-week project, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the heart of Anacostia, started knocking on the glass and offering suggestions, too.
“These are things people would want to do,” Omorogieva said. “The bridge could really help an area like this, with stuff to do, bring people in.” His idea was to have food trucks “to give the taste of D.C., with Caribbean, Asian, African, other types of food.” He designed a seating area nearby, shaded by trees and looking over the water. Especially in Anacostia, there aren’t many places to eat out. “That gets people to go on the bridge” and spread the word, he said. “Everyone likes a place to sit and eat.”
Washington suggested an eight-story hotel next to the bridge, with a waterfall, climbing wall and rooftop garden, which would bring business to both neighborhoods. Stephon Carrington, a 19-year-old who just graduated from Dunbar High School, designed a playground in which kids from both sides of the river could play together. Solar panels would power the lighting nearby. McKnight imagined a filter to clean river water and use it in a shady fountain surrounded by benches and buffered by trees and walls from the noise of traffic on the replacement bridges.
On the Anacostia side, the bridge is close to a large nature park. On the Capitol Hill side, it’s by the Navy Yard, which has a walkway along the water to another city park and the baseball stadium. Ideally, a bike path would weave through the bridge park, said Scott Kratz, who took a two-week vacation from his job at the National Building Museum to volunteer as project adviser. “One of the goals was to have a safe place for healthy recreation.”
Another was to help clean up the river, in part by getting people to use it and care for it. Students suggested paddleboats and fishing piers.
This fall, the city is launching a national design competition for the park. Patricia Zingsheim of the Planning Office hopes the teenagers’ work will inspire and inform the final design. The best-case scenario would be to have the redesigned bridge open by 2016, but planners acknowledged that with funding questions and other unknowns, that’s probably unrealistic. They hope that the park would be maintained by a private partner, either a company or a nonprofit.
In a cash-strapped city with a lot of big problems, ambitious projects don’t always make it. The bridge park might never get past the plastic-foam, clay and pipe-cleaner model the teenagers built this summer.
Nicholson thinks it will take a mayor willing to push for grants and private partners to get it funded and built. “If they [city leaders] see the people here as just the people on the other side of the river,” it will never be a priority, he said.
“I hope it happens,” Carrington said. “It could help the city to connect.”
“The bridge would bring money to the community,” Washington said, “and help clean the river.”
McKnight pointed to the model, to his construction-paper bench by the fountain. “I’d like to sit right here and look at the water.”