Coming down to earth

How one art collaboration is illuminating the ravaging effects of the climate crisis on the indigenous lands of Ward 7

Once, the Anacostia River was a winding, navigable river lined by tidal marshes and forests that stretched from the Potomac River to the Port of Bladensburg. Over 4,000 years ago, its eastern banks became home to the Nacotchtank people, who farmed, fished, and traded in villages along the river.

But today, the area that now comprises Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens and the surrounding neighborhood are particularly at risk for the irreversible effects of climate change. By way of public education, advocacy, and art-making, Julianne Brienza, Founding Director of Capital Fringe, has been working to move the needle and shining a light on the 10,000-year-old history of the Anacostia River, the history of the indigenous people who once held claim to the land and the families living there today.

“We’re leaning on storytelling and art creation to change the trajectory of the climate conversation,” said Brienza, who founded Down to Earth, an artist residency program in partnership with the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Caandor Labs.

Flooding on Anacostia Avenue in October 2021. Credit: Justin A. Lini

A tumultuous history

For hundreds of years, the Anacostia area remained uniquely preserved and protected. The Nacotchtank tribe of Native Americans managed the lands along the river for centuries and utilized natural practices that allowed the river, the wildlife, and the land to thrive and sustain a healthy ecosystem — deriving from their land, food, medicine, and raw materials. Even when Englishman John Smith and his fellow settlers came to explore the Anacostia, known as the and Eastern Branch of the Potomac in 1608, the wetlands remained untouched and plant life continued to thrive.

In the 1880s, Civil War veteran Walter Shaw discovered that the wetlands provided a fertile site to cultivate water lilies and built a water garden that allowed him to grow and sell all types of water-loving plants. Shaw’s garden eventually became the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, part of the only national park site devoted to cultivating water-loving plants.

But conservation of the area was eventually derailed in the 1930s, when the federal government attempted to dredge the Anacostia and fill the Kenilworth Marsh. However, as Shaw’s Garden relied on daily tidal flows from Kenilworth Marsh for water and nutrients, Shaw’s daughter appealed to Congress, and the Gardens became protected and part of Anacostia Park in 1938. Today, the Aquatic Gardens includes more than 35 historic water lily and lotus ponds, while on the outer edge closer to the Anacostia River lies what may very well be the largest section of mostly undestroyed tidal freshwater wetland in the entire watershed.

While the Gardens thrived, in 1942, the federal government established the Kenilworth Landfill on the adjacent site now known as Kenilworth Park. This land on Anacostia Avenue became known as Kenilworth Dump and was home to daily burning of municipal waste, emitting smoke that darkened the skies and rained down ash on surrounding middle-class Black communities—financed, designed, and built by Black residents and architects. 

“That’s environmental injustice 101: the landfill polluted the river and the community, and a railroad line brought toxic materials that had a direct impact on the way of life in the community,” said Dennis Chestnut, D.C. native and a Ward 7 resident. “It’s hard to imagine that one area became the place where everything in the District was dumped, and I mean, everything.”

The communities fought for years to close the dump. Eastland Gardens residents and other civic groups blocked garbage trucks in protest. The protests and burning continued until 1968, when 7-year-old Kelvin Mock was killed in the fires while playing in the Kenilworth Dump.

Mock’s death halted open burning, and the dump was closed in 1972 — the land was capped, buried, and turned into sports fields and a recreation center. For years, methane from the land on which the Dump resided was harvested to fuel furnaces that warmed the greenhouses of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The burgeoning climate threat

In 2030 — just eight years from now — according to the independent watchdog organization Climate Central, communities throughout the District will experience extensive and consistent periods of flooding, including the Yards in Ward 8, Kingman Island, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Ward 7, and the entire Anacostia River Trail from Anacostia Park to Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland. The effects of the climate crisis are happening at this very moment, and the reality is that this crisis disproportionately affects communities of color and those populated by low-income residents like the area surrounding Kenilworth.

While government officials plan to remediate, restore and transfer ownership of that landfill site to the District government for increased recreational use, and restore the shorelines and wetlands to help control stormwater and reduce flood risks, advocates like Capital Fringe, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are working to fast-track this action.

A Self-Reliant Community, by Rik Freeman. Winter 2021,Canvas 4’ H x 6’W; painted in oils.

Building awareness through art

The Down to Earth creative project partnership aims to shine a light on the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and the Kenilworth area’s past, present, and future, with a sharp focus on the climate emergency and its intersectionality with systemic racism. 

“We have plenty to fear about the climate crisis,” Brienza said. “But to change behavior, we need hope, and we need art and storytelling to help address it.”

Making use of a diverse collection of media, the collaboration has helped artists fulfill their creative visions surrounding the Ward 7 community over the past year. Collected works are on exhibit throughout April at the Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The collection includes an exhibit by Down to Earth artist-in-residence Siobhan Rigg, who experienced firsthand the years of damage and the current state of the Anacostia River—full of heavy metals and organic pollutants. Rigg’s observations of the tide and the results of soil tests are recorded in a multimedia investigative project entitled Coming in with the Tide.

“Things that go down—like oil and gas—don’t necessarily go down to stay; they come back with the tide. So the damage over time continues to resurface,” said Rigg. “What would it be like to reframe the narrative and look at the Anacostia as a potential source of sustenance?” 

Like Rigg, each of the participating artists in Down to Earth brings a unique perspective to the project. Rik Freeman’s paintings illustrate life along the Anacostia 12000 BC to the present day. Nikki Hendricks created three sustainable fabric designs based on the plant and wildlife of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Thomas Stanley, Malik Thomas, and Mark Cooley produced a series of oral histories that can be heard on smartphones while at Gardens.

Despite the immediate realities of our changing climate and the looming predictions of future flooding, projects like Down to Earth illuminate how the community is grappling with the challenges and seeking out potential solutions to help preserve the rich historic lands along the Anacostia River. 

Experience the creative works produced by local artists during the year-long artist-in-residence project that is Down to Earth. Learn more here.

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