A drive across the Frederick Douglass Bridge through the commercial areas of Anacostia will convince even the uninformed observer that progress has escaped this province.
The failure of development efforts there is apparent. Just over the bridge, at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue, there is a small store on the southeast corner. That store was intended to provide an outlet for fresh foods and dry goods and was expected to add light and activity to the intersection. Completed in 1976, the store today stands boarded and unoccupied. Many other stores and businesses also have closed and there is little or no indication of a coordinated effort to improve economic conditions in Anacostia.
In 1975, I became the executive director of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), a nonprofit organization established that year with a grant from the now-defunct federal Community Services Administration. The purpose of AEDC was to enhance the commercial and physical development of the area east of the river and south of Pennsylvania Avenue. AEDC was intended to become the Washington equivalent of the highly successful Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in New York City.
The restoration of Anacostia--then as now--is a formidable task requiring the cooperation of the community, the help of the District of Columbia government and the assistance of varied financial institutions. In 1975, we had promises of support, cooperation and money. The promises were not fulfilled during my tenure at AEDC.
My parents lived in Anacostia at the Marbury Plaza Apartments, a middle-class dwelling on the ascent of Good Hope Road. A former neighbor, having previously relocated to California, commented upon her return on the lack of change in the old homestead. Her statements dispelled any illusion of progress and made it clear that decline rather than improvement had been the product of time.
Oh yes, there have been renovations in dying housing projects in the area, improvements of small shopping centers that provide outlets for convenience stores and the revitalization of landmarks, such as the old Curtis Brothers furniture store, now the Anacostia Professional Office Building.
Yet little or nothing has been done to improve economic opportunity for residents. Unemployment in the area is high, especially among youth. An estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of all youth 18 to 24 years old are high school dropouts, according to figures published by Southeast House, a nonprofit community social services organization.
In my opinion, there is much that can be done. Much should be done, not only because of austere times, but in spite of them.
The problem of economic development in Anacostia has always been, to my knowledge, a political issue--one affected by the myriad of community forces and constituencies that exist in the area. The community includes Uniontown, Congress Heights, residential enclaves that surround the commercial areas and parcels owned by absentee landlords.
There are several civic associations, churches and business groups in Anacostia, each with a vested interest in the development of the community's resources. The cooperative effort of these entities is necessary if we are to remove the obstacles to future development.
Without the development of Anacostia, the city will be faced with a "South Bronx" syndrome in the very near future, in spite of the hope that the population problem may be solved by the shift of many residents to Prince George's County.
In 1975, the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation designed a comprehensive economic development plan for the area south of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a plan that was small in concept, requiring only $3.6 million in investments. Today, with ever-growing demands for development, there is a need for an in-depth, long-term development package that has the support of all relevant parties.
It is time for a conference--a conference composed of the churches, community groups, government agencies, private landowners, and political leaders. It should create an agenda for coordinated development and establish a task force to produce a comprehensive development plan.
That plan can then be used as a guideline for future economic, commercial and physical development. The plan, and the process involved in its completion, should be the task of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, which is the leading entity for such efforts in Anacostia.