The Anacostia, once known as the "forgotten river," is coming back to life. After two centuries of decline, the river and its waterfront seem poised for the kind of comeback that could dramatically reshape the city and the region.
The creation of Anthony Williams's Anacostia waterfront authority is one sure sign of a renewal. But the real giveaway is that the smart money, the Douglas Jemals of the world, are buying up waterfront property. And while the District is moving boldly ahead, Maryland is uncharacteristically sluggish about the potential of the headwaters of the Anacostia, which lie on the Maryland side of the District line. The eight-mile river originates in the historic town of Bladensburg, at the confluence of the Northwest and Northeast Branches, the river's main tributaries.
Three centuries ago, Bladensburg was the second-busiest port on the East Coast, with a 40-foot-deep harbor. European ships would travel up the Anacostia with textiles and goods, and return to Europe with tobacco. In those days, the Anacostia was three times wider than it is today.
For years, the Bladensburg Port was operated as a marina, but it experienced neglect and frequent flooding. State and county investment have stopped the flooding and created the beginnings of a park-like setting at the old port, which is now owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. There are plans to build a 500-seat amphitheatre and museum, but money and public leadership for these projects are in short supply. To be sure, the Bladensburg port is too environmentally sensitive for the kind of waterfront development Tony Williams is talking about in the District. But Bladensburg has a rich historic and recreational potential that might attract the right balance of commercial investment nearby. The old port is minutes away by water from the National Arboretum and its beautiful aquatic gardens. If the Anacostia does come back to life, it's not hard to imagine boat rides from Bladensburg to the Tidal Basin, only 15 minutes away by water.
This kind of vision will require federal investment. One barrier to an active river is a rusting old CSX railroad crossing in the District, which is low enough to block much water traffic but will be massively expensive to relocate. Maryland could also use some interest from the National Park Service in recognizing the historic significance of the Bladensburg area. With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 rapidly approaching, the Bladensburg battlefield draws national interest, if only as the site of the nation's largest homeland defeat. The battlefield, now mostly part of Fort Lincoln Cemetery, is largely obscured from visitors.
Then there's the matter of pollution. More than 60 percent of the Anacostia's pollution is estimated to come from Maryland runoff. More than 70 percent of the time, the water near Bladensburg is unfit for swimming, but this is a significant improvement from before.
All of this potential cries out for leadership on the Maryland side. There are already deeply committed organizations such as the Anacostia Watershed Network, the Port Towns Community Development Corp., and the Anacostia Watershed Society that are working hard to realize the potential of the Anacostia. But Maryland needs an equivalent to the bold waterfront authority created by Tony Williams, or better yet, the authority should become regional in scope to include all of the Anacostia, including the port of Bladensburg.
The Anacostia derived its name from the language of Nacotchtank Indians, who lived in the watershed area for as long as 12,000 years. The Anacostia was a rich center of fishing and trading, and their word "anaquash," later "Anacostia," meant "village trading center." Today, centuries later, the Anacostia is ready once again to become a village trading center. Hopefully, the Maryland side of the river will be part of the rebirth.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served 16 years in the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is email@example.com.