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Currents of Change

The Anacostia River, a jewel tarnished by years of pollution and neglect, is beginning to regain its former beauty. Here's how the Washington area's "forgotten" river has been rediscovered by residents, environmentalists and the government.

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 1, 1996; Page B01

Charles Martin gazes out at the Anacostia River, flowing slowly past his pier, fouled and dirty but ever resilient, sparkling like a field of diamonds in the late-afternoon sun.

He has been out on the water all his life and isn't at all sure whether he should be smiling at the river or crying for it.

The Anacostia has always been a treasure maligned, spoiled and splendid and full of surprises.

He has seen used hypodermic needles washing up along the shoreline -- and ducks so thick on the water that it looked as if he could walk across their backs to the other side. He has seen egrets and herons and ospreys -- and tires and oil slicks and soggy floating trash.

But he knows this much about the Anacostia: It's home.

"This has been my river," he says. "I love this river. This river has always done right by me."

They call the Anacostia Washington's "forgotten river," not to be confused with its "beloved river," the Potomac. Although the nation has spent an estimated $5 billion over the last four decades cleaning up the Potomac, the Anacostia remains badly polluted by raw sewage, contaminated storm water and toxic waste.

One high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official has called it "a national disgrace" and noted that the District's antiquated sewer system still discharges millions of gallons of raw sewage and polluted storm water into the Anacostia every month. One Washington-based environmental group, American Rivers, considers the Anacostia one of the most endangered rivers in America and reports that development and population growth "continue to transform the river's watershed into parking lots and driveways."

Martin and other neighborhood folks who have grown up on the Anacostia say it's no accident that the river running through the white side of town is clean and the river running through the black side of town is dirty. And new threats abound like stones along the shoreline.

Not far from where the Anacostia completes its eight-mile run from Bladensburg and flows into the Potomac at Hains Point, the Washington Navy Yard oozes cancer-causing PCBs and other toxic substances into the river, according to a lawsuit filed this year by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

A mile upriver, just north of the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge, the proposed $200 million Barney Circle Freeway would pave over more of the Anacostia's heavily developed watershed and cast a shadow over historic Seafarers Yacht Club, the first black boat club in Washington and the place where Martin docks his boat, with yet another bridge over the river.

And a mile upstream from there, across from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Heritage and Kingman islands in the Anacostia have just been handed over by Congress to the District government for eventual use by private developers who want to build a $150 million amusement park on federal parkland where eagles recently have returned.

But the Anacostia -- ever a study in contrasts -- is coming back to life, in spite of it all. Environmentalists, government officials and community activists agree on at least that much.

The Anacostia, they say, is forgotten no more.

Two years ago, the Clinton administration finally designated the Anacostia as one of seven priority ecosystems nationally, just as years of piecemeal government spending and grass-roots environmental activism were beginning to yield startling results.

Thousands of community volunteers have been cleaning up dump sites along the river for the better part of a decade. Five years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers embarked upon a first freshwater wetlands restoration on the Anacostia, the engineers' first in history. The D.C. government began a program to remove floating debris from the river in 1992.

And early next year, a new EPA waste-water treatment permit will require the District to follow nine separate procedures to minimize sewage and waste-water discharges into the river while it develops a long-term plan to make the Anacostia fishable and swimmable once again.

In the meantime, fish already are coming back. Birds are coming back. Streams are coming back. And people are coming back, pulling tires out of tributaries, canoeing down the river from Bladensburg, setting fledgling eaglets free along the shoreline in Northeast Washington and monitoring water quality for science class way downstream at Anacostia High School.

"It's not a dead river, as some people have called it," says Damon Whitehead, a lawyer with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. "It's far from being a lost cause."

Martin has noticed the change. As he stands like a lookout on the bridge of his boat, his gaze is reminiscent of Langston Hughes:

"I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Charles Martin, 66, knows the Anacostia, his river, which has run through his life for 54 years.

He first saw a boat -- a paddle boat -- on the Tidal Basin when he was 12. It might as well have been a rocket ship. Martin wanted to ride in a boat on the water more than anything else in the world.

But the man at the paddle boat concession told him he didn't "rent these boats to no niggers." So Martin went home and built himself a kayak from plans in Popular Science and launched it in the Anacostia right in front of the whites-only swimming pool in Anacostia Park. It was 1942.

"Back then, you could get in this river; you could swim in this river," says Martin, a retired construction foreman. "I can't describe the feeling at all -- just to have that paddle in the water. It was a very beautiful experience for a person who had never been on water before."

By the time he was 18, married and working his first construction job, Martin built himself a bigger boat, bought a 7 1/2-horsepower motor from Sears and took it down to the river again, launching it this time at Buzzard Point. "And we had a good time," he says, "up and down the Anacostia River."

But that wasn't enough: Charles Martin wanted to water-ski.

So he bought a bigger boat with a bigger motor, put an inner tube around his waist and made history. "I was the first black in D.C. water-skiing on the Anacostia. And I taught any black person -- or white person -- who wanted to learn."

Martin first laid eyes on Seafarers in the early 1960s, when it was overgrown and near oblivion. Back when he was being turned away at the Tidal Basin, a public school shop teacher named Lewis T. Green was trying to rent some land on the Anacostia from the National Park Service -- and getting the cold shoulder.

He went to Mary McLeod Bethune, the legendary civil rights leader, who spoke to Eleanor Roosevelt on his behalf. Soon, in 1944, the Park Service came up with a piece of swampland on the river at the foot of M Street SE, where Green established Seafarers.

But by the early 1960s, a group of original members had split off and formed their own club in Annapolis, leaving Green virtually alone. He turned to Martin, whom he had once taught in shop class, and asked him to help save the club. Martin served as commodore for the next 20 years.

"I built that clubhouse and most of these docks," Martin says. "I built it -- me. But I'll share it with anyone who wants to to be part of it -- anyone."

These days, he mostly putters on his 41-foot cabin cruiser with his wife, Jacqueline, and their son, Chubby. The river rocks their boat through languid summer afternoons and crisp fall mornings, when the leaves change on all the fruit trees in Seafarers yard.

"I tell you, he'd move down here in a minute if he could," his wife says.

Martin climbs up to the bridge of the boat and gazes out on the river sparkling in the late afternoon sun. The city's trash-skimming barge has just chugged by his pier, and the river's turbid tidewater is, for the moment, free of floating trash.

"It's terrible, it's awful -- and smelly sometimes," Martin says. "Nevertheless, I can't take my mind off my roots -- the Anacostia River and ole Washington, D.C."

He looks north toward Bladensburg and sees a string of canoes from the Anacostia Watershed Society coming down the river.

"There's a canoeist -- and there's another one," he says, smiling at the river now. "I love that -- and it's just beginning to come back. To tell you the truth, this is the first time I've seen that many canoes on the other side of the river."

Robert Boone, ardent environmentalist and part-time yoga instructor from College Park, leads those expeditions down river, putting a dozen canoes into the water at Bladensburg a few feet from a sign that says: "Warning, extremely shallow water at low tide."

This is the historic Bladensburg waterfront, where the tidal Anacostia begins. It was once a major East Coast seaport, with water 40 feet deep. But now Boone can touch the bottom of the river with the paddle of his canoe.

A self-described "tree hugger" and former hippie with a master's degree in educational psychology, Boone, 57, founded the Anacostia Watershed Society in 1989 after moving to the area from his native North Carolina. Back in the late '80s, people told him he was nuts to even think about canoeing the Anacostia.

What has killed the river more than anything else and filled it with polluted, muddy silt is development of the watershed -- a force even more pernicious than sewage overflows and toxic waste dumping, Boone says. Without woods and wetlands to soak up water when it rains, roads and parking lots and other "impervious" surfaces produce runoff in torrents that erodes stream beds and fills rivers with toxic muck.

"It's only recently, in the last decade, that they've taken a good look at storm water and said, 'Hey, this is really polluted stuff,' " Boone says. The surface of the Anacostia -- covered with floating trash and oil, whatever is coming out of the storm drains -- proves his point.

Boone is a lot like Martin, never knowing whether to laugh or cry. "It's been a dumping ground for 150 years," he says. "It's been the back door."

But to paddle down the river with Boone today is to see it coming back to life.

"There's a great blue heron," Boone says, paddling away from Bladensburg. "We'll go from here to Benning Road and the Pepco plant and not see another man-made structure, except bridges. We'll be in the middle of Washington, D.C. -- and you'll be amazed at how quiet it is. The first time we canoed down the river, it was awesome -- at mid-tide you could see maybe 2,000 to 3,000 tires. Now, at mid-tide or high tide, you don't see any tires."

Kenilworth Marsh is a little more than a mile downstream. Once a barren, 32-acre mud flat, it came roaring back to life after the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on its first freshwater wetland restoration in history five years ago.

"The wetlands are like a nursery for wildlife -- and an immune system for a river," Boone says. "It filters the water, and it cleans the water."

Once, when Indians lived along the river, there were 100,000 acres of wetlands in the Anacostia watershed. Now, with the restoration of Kenilworth, there are 65.

Hickey Run, a tributary that flows through the National Arboretum, meets the Anacostia several hundred yards downstream from Kenilworth. It was so polluted and black with oil in the 1980s that it once caught on fire.

Then Boone came along in 1990 and walked the stream back to the source of the oil -- a Metro bus depot on Bladensburg Road. When Metro officials wouldn't let him inside the yard, he sneaked in and took enough photographs to convince the Metro board that the place was leeching oil.

Today, fish are spawning again in Hickey Run. And from a grassy stretch of arboretum property called Asia Valley -- where Boone led a fight to stop the dumping of animal waste from the National Zoo on the banks -- the Earth Conservation Corps has released four young bald eaglets into the watershed each of the past two years.

"The Anacostia is no longer the forgotten river," Boone says, paddling downstream. "It's on the map again."

HARRY DAVIS DANGLES HIS FISHING line off an arched wooden footbridge that leads from the massive parking lots at RFK Stadium to Heritage Island out in the Anacostia. A second wooden bridge connects Heritage to another island, Kingman, a finger of land 1 1/2 miles long that's bisected by the Benning Road Bridge.

"I come down here almost every day," Davis says. "It's so peaceful. Man, I love it."

Welcome to Kingman Lake, a sheltered, bucolic area on the river where developers want to build a $150 million high-tech amusement center as part of a project they call Children's Island.

The proposal has sparked a furious debate between environmentalists trying to restore the river and an array of economic interests behind the long-discussed development project, which suddenly gained momentum during the summer when Congress passed legislation transferring both islands -- 45 acres of federal parkland -- to the District.

The controversy may be a preview of future debates: If the river ever gets clean enough for swimming, boating and fishing without the current restrictions on fish consumption, riverfront development could become a major issue.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council, has called the land transfer a "shameful" giveaway of some of "the most beautiful green space in our nation's capital."

But pursuing "environmental justice" along the Anacostia is no simple task.

Norris McDonald, president of the local African-American Environmentalists Association and a Children's Island supporter, says his colleagues in the environmental movement are so focused on wildlife that they have neglected the educational and recreational interests of Washington's high-risk, low-income teenagers, who have grown up along a polluted river they have never been able to use.

On the other side of the issue, Frazier Walton shakes his head in disgust.

"They want to clean the river up," says Walton, 47, a lawyer who now heads the Kingman Park Civic Association. "And here they're going to bring 2,500 cars to the shoreline every day."

Kingman Park, where Walton grew up, is a stone's throw from the Anacostia. He remembers fishing for catfish early in the morning with his dad off a pier at the foot of Benning Road before heading up to Griffith Stadium in the afternoon to watch the Washington Senators play.

But then the city built RFK Stadium in 1961 and expanded D.C. General Hospital in an area that already had a city incinerator and trash dump on prime sites by the river. Residents are in the midst of lawsuits to clean up the Navy Yard and stop construction of the Barney Circle Freeway. And now here come the developers again, Walton says, proposing an amusement park that residents see as another environmental threat to their neighborhood.

And if they have to sue to stop Children's Island, Walton and his neighbors won't hesitate.

"People go over there and walk a lot along the river," says Julius Lowery, 67, a retired business executive who grew up in Kingman Park. "I think the fear is that the river will become inaccessible and the little bit of nature we have will be taken away."

Lowery's father, a postal worker, bought the family's row house in the 400 block of 21st Street NE in 1940. It was one of the first areas in Washington where blacks could buy a newly built home.

He remembers his uncle coming up from North Carolina and fishing the Anacostia. He remembers helping to tend a victory garden during World War II out on Kingman Island, where his father grew greens and tomatoes and peppers.

He wonders what would happen if developers proposed building an amusement park on Roosevelt Island on the Potomac opposite the Kennedy Center and the Watergate. "They turned Roosevelt Island into a treasure," he says, "and they want to use this as an amusement park. It's ridiculous."

TWO MILES DOWNSTREAM FROM KINGMAN PARK, on the opposite shore, schoolgirls jump double dutch in front of Anacostia's Kramer Middle School as a group of eighth-graders load two blue and gold rowboats into a pickup truck for a short drive down to the river.

They built the boats themselves as part of an anti-violence program at the school, something to keep them off the street. But now they know how Charles Martin felt out in his kayak long ago when he pulled an oar on the water. "It feels like I'm a man," says Amin Wilson, 14, after rowing out toward Seafarers Yacht Club.

The rowboats, and the school's proximity to the Anacostia, have prompted Principal Nancy A. Berry to make environmental science Kramer's primary focus. Sadly, she says, most Kramer students come to school absent any kind of attachment to the neighborhood's greatest natural resource.

Beverly E. Baker, the EPA's liaison to the Anacostia community, says many of the people she has met in the neighborhood see the river only "as a barrier: 'It separates us and them, and it's polluted.' "

But she is encouraged by Berry's environmental emphasis at Kramer -- and a similar thrust two blocks away at Anacostia High School, where 160 students are now enrolled in an environmental science and computer technology academy. Its inspiration: the river.

Theresa McDougald, the science teacher largely responsible for creating the academy, remembers taking her students out five years ago on a science boat operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They tested water samples from the Potomac and Anacostia and were outraged by the results.

"They wanted to know why so much money had been put into restoring the Potomac and not the Anacostia," McDougald recalls. "And they wanted to know why the Anacostia had been allowed to become so polluted. It's offensive, especially when the river is running through their neighborhood."

One of her students, Sean Turner, 17, grew up with an admonition from his father ringing in his ears: Don't dare swim in the Anacostia. Now Turner has twice canoed down the Anacostia with Robert Boone and seen the wildlife -- and the trash -- upriver. "When it rains and people throw their trash on the ground, it goes down into the sewers and the pipes run straight into the Anacostia," Turner says during a recent class. "I don't think it's fair. It's not fair."

"All the trash comes to us," adds classmate Temeca Davis.

Asked why he is interested in the environment, 17-year-old Michael Grinage puts it like this: "I want to help make the world better, starting with the Anacostia, because this is where I live."

CARL C. COLE LIVES IN ANACOSTIA, TOO, right around the corner from the high school. He canoes on the river, he rows, he sails, he jogs the banks at sunrise, he stargazes with his telescope at night.

"Of all the places I have traveled to in the world, I can't think of any place I'd rather live than over here in Anacostia," says Cole, 54, a management consultant whose hair and mustache have turned a distinguished silver. "If I want to see a flight of heron, geese, egrets, I just go out my front door and walk a few blocks."

He's walking north on 16th Street SE late in the afternoon, passing in front of Anacostia High School and crossing the footbridge over I-295 that takes him to the park and then to the river, now a golden hue in the setting sun.

Cole grew up in Southwest Washington a couple of blocks from the Seventh Street wharves on the Washington Channel between the Tidal Basin and Hains Point. He remembers how people would buy their seafood right off commercial fishing ships, and how the whistle on the old Bay Line Steamer to Norfolk would sound every night at 11. He first dived into the Anacostia at Buzzard Point.

"You would never know the lure that water has for a young man," Cole says. "It's really hard to put into words how mesmerizing water can be for a kid. It was like a magnet. The river pulled me there, and I've stayed there."

How did the river fall so far from grace? The city changed, he says. A lot of people who grew up loving the river moved out to the suburbs. And the river kept getting more and more choked by raw sewage, toxins and trash. So the new people who moved in could see the river only for what it was, forgotten and polluted. They didn't know what it used to be or could be again.

"It was never a barrier to me -- never was, never will be," says Cole, standing on the east bank of the Anacostia. "Rivers will get deep within you, and they will never leave you. Most people would not believe just the sereneness of this all. You can just close your eyes and know you're off someplace else. You just sort of wrap yourself up in it and say, 'I'm home.' "

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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