A much needed warm spell allowed a winter kayak on the Anacostia River this afternoon. My kayak is stored at the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association, located just north of the John Phillips Sousa Bridge (known as the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to most residents.) I was surprised to see the boathouse buzzing with activity this time of year. River enthusiasts were cleaning their sculls getting ready for the spring season. Others were exercising on rowing machines prepping for future regattas scheduled for March, April and June.
Slipping into the river and heading upstream past the CSX tracks made me think about the past, present and future of urban watersheds. Over the last 100 years, we’ve done an amazing job placing as many barriers as possible between people and the waterfront. Highways, neglect and a legacy of industrial pollution have rendered once pristine wetlands into forgotten territory. I live four blocks from the river, and most of my neighbors couldn’t point towards the Anacostia. I’m not picking on my neighbors (they pick up my mail when away and join us for drinks in the backyard in warmer weather!) but it demonstrates that as a society, we have not made our rivers a priority. I find this strange as George Washington selected DC as our nation’s capital partly because of the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this allowed for easy shipping of tobacco, cured meats or ordinance manufactured at the nearby U.S. Navy Yard. We are slowly working to re-engage the public with our rivers – award winning spaces like Yards Park and the beautiful pedestrian walk along the Navy Yard certainly help – but we need more.
Over the last two years we have held nearly 200 community meetings asking for 11th Street Bridge Park programming suggestions. During many of these gatherings, residents share how the river once played a larger role in their lives. Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundworks Anacostia learned how to swim in the Anacostia. Thelma Jones from the Fairlawn neighborhood tells of how her brothers used to wade from one side of the river to the other during low tide. Comments like these have prompted residents on both sides of the river to request an environmental education center as part of a future 11th Street Bridge Park. Such a facility could re-engage our children with the river by teaching about local flora and fauna, watersheds and the river’s rich history. The region’s first Native American inhabitants spoke of chad so plentiful that you could almost walk across the river on their backs. And the first European settlers wrote about finding buffalo foraging along the Anacostia’s banks. We might not be able to bring buffalo back to DC, but working together we can inspire the next generation of river stewards. We can even realize the District’s goal of a swimmable and fishable river by 2032.
That future will be here before we know it. For now, I’m just happy to be out on the river paddling to Kingman Island and counting the great blue herons along its banks. Today the count stands at 5.