The Rev. Keith D. Kitchen is the pastor of the Zion Baptist Church of Eastland Gardens. Doug Siglin is executive director of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.
The Anacostia River has long divided the District of Columbia. In 1791, Pierre L’Enfant designed the “City of Washington” on only the west side of the Anacostia, launching the two sides of the river on very different trajectories. More than two centuries later, the communities on the east side of the Anacostia continue to lag in many educational and economic measures. Young people living east of the river get far fewer opportunities to succeed with their God-given gifts.
An island that could unite us lies in the middle of the river that divides us.
In 1916, as part of a failed scheme to create an Anacostia Water Park of “great beauty and value,” the Army Corps of Engineers began building a long, skinny island in the middle of the Anacostia. The island is commonly called Kingman Island, after the Corps chief engineer who died that year, but it is named National Children’s Island in federal law.
Eight decades later, Congress transferred the island to the District to facilitate construction of an amusement park and children’s playground. On signing the law, President Bill Clinton directed the National Capital Planning Commission to ensure that the islands be developed to “emphasize children’s recreation and education, the protection and restoration of the Anacostia watershed, and the public interest of the adjacent neighborhoods.”
Not long afterward, the Financial Control Board killed the amusement park deal. In 1999, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) proposed that the island instead be lightly developed as a natural and education resource for the District’s children, particularly those east of the Anacostia River who don’t have a lot of options for natural learning experiences. Williams understood that among the inequalities of the District is this: There are a lot more opportunities for kids to get out in nature on the west side of town than on the east, both in terms of well-outfitted natural areas and in terms of schools’ abilities to provide quality programs. In many ways, National Children’s Island could be like the extraordinary Rock Creek Park or Roosevelt Island on the west side of the city.
We know that the lives of our children and grandchildren are increasingly consumed with sitting and staring at glowing screens. Yet there is a huge body of peer-reviewed academic research showing how many health and academic benefits kids reap when they connect to nature. A nonprofit group called the Children & Nature Network has compiled the eye-opening research. Just a few of the benefits include improved cognitive ability, academic performance, social relations and self-discipline, as well as reduced stress and symptoms of attention deficit disorder.
During Williams’s time in office, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. began to realize his vision, including holding a competition for a nature center and other modest amenities on the island. However, the AWC was abolished and attention waned after Williams stepped down. Today the Living Classrooms Foundation and other nonprofits work as best they can with children and volunteers on the island, but there is no shelter or even working bathroom there.
Last year, the D.C. Council asked the Department of Energy and Environment to produce a new planning study for educational infrastructure on the island. A multi-sector team led by the prominent architectural firm Hickok Cole developed a phased plan, beginning with some basic amenities and leading up to the long-envisioned state-of-the-art nature center.
We believe that, unlike all the other failed visions and plans for National Children’s Island over the past century, this one needs to get done without delay.
The District needs to take the lead in making the education project happen. This isn’t a mega-project like the $441 million Frederick Douglass Bridge or the $490 million Robert F. Kennedy Stadium campus renovation plan revealed this year. The Department of Energy and Environment’s phased study estimated the initial cost for improvements, including classroom space, raised walkways, a floating lab, bathrooms and a modest office and storage facility, would be less than $11 million.
But the District shouldn’t have to fund it all. Dozens of philanthropies and thousands of private citizens in this area are searching for ways to help all the District’s children succeed. Having some modest, decent facilities on the east side of the city and making a commitment to get children there to explore the natural world fit right into those priorities.
The symbolism of doing something important for our children’s future in the middle of the river that has long divided our city is unmistakable. So is the importance of working on a project that can unite us all in these disturbing times. We call on city leaders and our philanthropic community to move ahead with making Kingman/National Children’s Island a place that makes the future better for our young people.