We are longtime residents of the District’s Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River. Every four years, issues affecting the 150,000 residents on our side of the Anacostia get attention, and posters and T-shirts proclaim that we are all that year’s variation of “One City.” But when the votes have been counted and the excitement dies down, our neighborhoods’ disconnection with the rest of the District remains.
Here is a simple but profound truth: We in Wards 7 and 8 are separated from the far larger and richer part of the District by a polluted river and 1,000 acres of securely fenced-off (or seriously neglected) federal land. So here’s a suggestion for Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser (D): Act aggressively to make the river and the acres around it a place that really unites our city, instead of one that holds us apart.
She doesn’t have to start from scratch. The Anacostia River is better than it used to be. Sewage overflows have declined, and the big tunnel project, scheduled for completion in 2022, will dramatically reduce bacteria in the water. The amount of plastic bags and trash in the river is down, too. With the District finally developing a plan to deal with the industrial toxic chemicals still in the sediment, prospects for restoring the river are pretty good.
But pulling us together is about more than simply cleaning up the water. We need a plan to improve the public land next to the river — on both sides.
More than a decade ago, Mayor Anthony Williams (D) created a comprehensive plan for both sides of the Anacostia and a public-private partnership to implement it. But the next mayor killed it, and little has happened since. A children’s education center planned for Kingman Island was scratched. The National Park Service, which is in charge of most of the east riverbank, never receives the budget it needs to significantly improve the park. Yet on the west side, a glitzy new neighborhood has sprouted north and west of the Washington Navy Yard, driven by a federal law allowing private development of the Southeast Federal Center, the largest federal Hope VI public housing project in history and the District’s investment in Nationals Park.
As the next mayor, Bowser can repair the great divide through the center of the nation’s capital. Here’s how to get started:
Commit to cleaning up the toxic chemicals in and around the river bottom. Make Kingman Island a shining place for kids to explore. Fulfill the terms of the agreement that would transfer Poplar Point and part of Kenilworth Park to the District. Create a strong new partnership with the National Park Service to plan and implement a riverside eco-park on our side of the river, as so many other cities have done. Ask local and national philanthropies to help — we cannot do it alone.
Improving the land around the river could provide not only tangible education and training opportunities for young people but also a place for families to enjoy. It could include a permanent cultural display, such as a remembrance of the history of the Nacotchtank people and the generations of Washingtonians who have called the east side of the river home.
We have plenty of challenges in Wards 7 and 8 — jobs, education and a real lack of basic neighborhood amenities. Restoring the Anacostia and creating a great eco-park won’t fix all our issues, but it would raise our next generation’s sights by showing them the natural wonders in the middle of the nation’s capital. Moreover, it would make kids on the east side of town feel a little less like residents of another world, separate and unequal.
As Bowser takes office, our hope is that four years from now, we can talk about the real progress that has been made to turn the Anacostia River area into a jewel that unites us all.