Anacostia Park is hardly a classic beauty.

The river that flows along its banks in Southeast Washington runs muddy brown. It is bounded on one side by a busy highway, I-295, and on another by the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Smokestacks and gravel barges punctuate a gritty, gaunt panorama, and the sun can beat like a hammer on these 300 acres almost bare of trees.

For thousands of Southeast residents, though -- and thousands more from the nearby Maryland suburbs -- this strip of former marshland is a place to forget the cares and worries of life in the inner city, a place where cool breezes blow.

It is air conditioning without the electricity, crowds without feeling crowded, a slice of nature amid the concrete and macadam.

"We don't have too many playgrounds where we live," said Karen Bowman, 29, who lives nearby. "I come out here all the time in summer. I put the kids to bed and go out, sometimes 10 or 11 at night. I just get some breeze and stand by the water."

This is the second year city officials have decided to hold a portion of the District's annual Potomac Riverfest in Anacostia Park, and organizers are expecting large crowds.

For most of the year, though, the park needs no particular event to attract a steady stream of visitors, an estimated 500,000 annually who come out on the merest whim, or maybe an afternoon's fishing expedition.

From Maryland and Virginia, soccer, rugby and softball players accustomed to paying a fee for the use of playing fields routinely drive to Anacostia to play free on lands operated by the National Park Service, stretching between South Capitol Street and to the Conrail tracks that bisect the parkland.

At sunrise, the first anglers are baiting their hooks. By noontime workers from downtown have arrived for an open-air lunch. Afternoons drift by with pick-up basketball games. Children come after school to roller skate in an expansive pavilion. By evening, the park fills with families and friends to picnic and beat the heat, sometimes so many of them that finding a parking place becomes impossible and U.S. Park Police are forced to close the road that runs through the park.

"It's not just a local park. It's not just a community park by any stretch of the imagination," said Anacostia Park Superintendent Burnice Kearney. "It's a regional park that draws people from around the area."

Yet despite the park's popularity, it is almost always a peaceful place. "I'm surprised myself that there haven't been more fights and disturbances," said Park Police Lt. Paul Bolten, who added that there is "some drug use" in the park and that rapes are reported "a couple a times a year."

Aside from a decades-old D.C. recreation center, where black children once were barred under segregation rules but now swarm in summer, the area occupied by the "We don't have too many playgrounds where we live. I come here all the time in summer. I put the kids to bed and go out . . . . I just get some breeze and stand by the water."

-- Karen Bowman

park has retained few of the vestiges of a past first recorded by Capt. John Smith in 1608, when he noted the presence of the Nacotchtank Indians living on the Anacostia's banks.

After the area was settled by Europeans, and became part of Maryland, it thrived on tobacco farming. Ships stopped on their way to and from the port of Bladensburg upriver. As the nation's capital grew, a group of developers looked to the area east of the river to build houses for workers, and named it Uniontown.

Farming and development began to take their toll, though. Runoff from the land began to fill in the river, said park historian Marilyn Nickels, and the area became a marsh known as "Anacostia Flats."

Concerned that the marshes would become breeding grounds for disease, and that the silt would close off the waterway to U.S. warships, military officials at the Washington Navy Yard and Marine Barracks across the river brought in engineers to dredge the river. What they pulled up from the bottom is now the park.

The then-new retaining wall built by the Army Corps of Engineers drew fishermen from east and west of the river.

"You could see through the water then. It was clear," said one fisherman who identified himself only as Ralph, a retired Navy Yard worker. "There were plenty of fish. We used to stay out all night and sleep in the park on those hot nights."

Those days are clearly gone. Often the river is fouled with sewage. The fish catch is only one-tenth that of the nearby Potomac. Uniontown has been replaced by I-295, and Southeast neighborhoods that often complain of second-class treatment have seen much of their access to the park sacrificed to commuter traffic.

"With people moving in with families and young children, there's a constant concern for places for children to play," said Nickels. "On this side of the city in particular, these places are critical. There is no grass."

Yesterday, fourth-grade teacher Gladys Snowden from nearby Orr Elementary School brought her class to the park for a lazy lunch of sandwiches and potato chips.

For them, the park is a different world.

"On Easter, we come out here and hide eggs," said 10-year-old Keveatte Hartridge. "We do that to have fun because there aren't enough woods where we live to hide them."