By John W. Fountain
Anacostia used to bustle with shoppers, used to thrive with movie theaters, stores and bowling alleys. It crawled with night life. A self-contained city within a city. On Saturdays and Sundays, before the river became polluted, families used to stroll down to its scenic, tranquil banks and angle for catfish, picnic on the emerald grass, lie in the sun.
"When you came across that bridge, it wasn't Ward 8, it was Anacostia, D.C.," Hannah Hawkins, 58, a longtime resident, says reminiscing on a tour of her neighborhood nestled at the city's southernmost edge. It is in this quadrant of the city that Hawkins raised five children -- three boys and two girls -- and where she also runs the Children of Mine youth center, just blocks from her home in Ward 8.
"It's still the only part of the city that has hills and plains," Hawkins says, adding that nearby Interstate 295 makes the ward more accessible to Maryland and Virginia than any other in the city. "When you're out here, you can generally breath fresh air."
Her words echo a sense of longing and loss.
"It's coming back to the way it used to be," Hawkins says, encouraged by scattered signs of hope in an otherwise economic wasteland.
Thoughts of rebirth and promises of revitalization find their place naturally in the context of an election year, and in this election year, they hold particular significance in the section of the city most in need of both.
Today in the surrounding neighborhoods known politically as Ward 8, liquor stores and churches dot the landscape. On certain spots along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, drug dealers and thugs linger into the shadowy, neon night. Fast-food joints are plenteous. A sit-down restaurant is an anomaly.
There is only one supermarket, a lone Safeway just south of St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill and the boarded-up brick shell that used to house a McDonald's. All around, there are classic signs of inner-city despair.
In Ward 8, at least two things are as evident as the estimated 58,000 people who live there and the overabundant stock of public housing: pride and poverty.
Usually referred to as Southeast or Anacostia, it is a place of dreams deferred, or forgotten, and of what many believe to be the land of far too many broken promises.
"Millions of dollars have come over here, but they have not fallen into the hands of the needy, but in the hands of the greedy," Hawkins says.
According to the 1990 Census, Ward 8 has the lowest median income, the highest unemployment rate and the highest number of single-parent households in the city. In fact, the median household income in 1997 was $26,300 -- 34 percent less than the $39,792 median income for households citywide.
In 1990, 70 percent of the housing in Ward 8 were rental units. It also had the lowest number of homeowners of any of the city's eight wards. The ward ranked last in the total number of housing units -- 28,860 -- but had the second highest number of public housing units of any ward in the city.
Ward 8 is bordered by Naylor and Morris Roads on the north, the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers on the west, and on the south and east by Southern Avenue and the Prince George's County line. Beyond St. Elizabeths, the ward is home to the 7th District police headquarters, the Anacostia Museum, the East of the River Development Corp. and its most famous resident Mayor Marion Barry.
For some, the ward has come to epitomize the crime-ravaged, economically castrated communities across urban America that have become home to the poorest of the poor. In recent years, plans to build single-family houses in the ward, in addition to improvements to existing public housing and slated commercial development, have offered the greatest signs of hope for the ailing community. Among them is the Walter E. Washington Estates, a 141-town house community being developed by H.R. Crawford's Property Management Co. and the Ridgecrest Tenants Co-op Association.
Crawford's work and that of a few other developers is part of an effort to help turn the ward's neighborhoods around.
Although any renaissance will take time, residents such as Hawkins, who remember the way Anacostia used to be and love their corner of the city, say they're willing to wait. For others, it can't come soon enough.
It's a hot and muggy afternoon. Henry McCoy lounges on his porch in the 3300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, taking in the afternoon sun, watching the cars whiz by. His two adult daughters and a son-in-law sit nearby, overlooking the fenced, manicured lawn in a block of similar homes at the city's far southern edge.
McCoy and his wife of 49 years, Adelaide, raised six children in the modest four-bedroom, red-brick bi-level home. Throngs of children used to fill the neighborhood, their chatter incessant, especially on school mornings as they walked by the house or filed on the bus headed to nearby Ballou, which is the ward's only high school today.
"It was more kids. You used to see the kids getting off the bus. You don't see that anymore. It's quieted down a lot," says McCoy, a young-looking 70-year-old who has 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and is a retired resident manager for an apartment complex.
Like many residents, McCoy believes neighborhoods east of the river have been unfairly stigmatized.
"Anacostia is a quiet neighborhood. I think it's got a bad rap," McCoy says. "They compare it to being a high-crime area. But I don't think it's any different than any other part of the city."
Crime declined across the city last year. But violence in any neighborhood reverberates with lasting effects and implications for a community. In September, a 17-year-old male was fatally shot a few blocks north of the McCoys' on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, allegedly by another youth. A month later, a few blocks south, a 13-year-old girl was stabbed to death allegedly by another teenage girl after a war of words.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company