Volume 16, Issue 21 - May 22-May 28, 2008

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Where We Live
by Steve Carr

The Other Side of the River

The Anacostia seems a long way from the Bay

Out here in Chesapeake Country, we may take an occasional trip to Washington to see a museum or the cherry blossoms. But beyond New York Avenue and Monuments Mall, the rest of D.C. is a mystery.

I go into our nation’s capital pretty regularly, and I have led many urban walks around places like Foggy Bottom, Sixteenth Avenue, and the Maine Avenue seafood market. But the one section of Washington that has always been terra incognita for me is Southeast. The very name conjures up burned-out tenements and street corner drug deals. I have often taken Kenilworth Avenue into town and driven by Benning Avenue thinking, What would happen if I broke down and had to go looking for help over there?

I found out this spring on the 2008 Anacostia Eco Tour with my friend Greg Drury, from Wholeness for Humanity, who was teaming up with Ed Brandt, from the Environmental Protection Agency on a ride themed One Bike Ride Closer To A Unified D.C.

The itinerary was intriguing: a 15-mile bike ride through the Anacostia Watershed.

The state of Maryland officially lists the headwaters of the Anacostia, in Prince George’s County, as a scenic river. But my limited glimpses, usually from the seat of a passing Metro train gliding past Kingman Island near RFK Stadium, was of a trash-strewn, mud flat, oil-sheen mess.

Here was my chance to see the Anacostia up close and personal.

We began our trip at the new U.S. Department of Transportation Building by the Navy Yard. I had ridden my bike there last fall, when the National’s new stadium was still an erector set hole in the ground surrounded by shabby shacks and vacant lots overgrown with weeds and littered with broken glass. Since then, this sporty economic engine had magically transformed the blighted area into high-rise glass office buildings and trendy restaurants.

Our group was comprised of government wonks, crunchy young environmentalists and D.C. bike police. The police were there to protect several D.C. big wigs.

We headed off with a police escort. When we came to intersections, the police stopped traffic and we pedaled through like dignitaries.

The area northwest of the Anacostia is mostly mixed neighborhoods where soccer clinics bring people of all races and colors together to watch munchkins kick white balls across scraggly playgrounds. We visited the Virginia Avenue Community Garden where neighbors plant vegetables in a large field by the freeway.

After a stop at Judy’s Solar Home, we pedaled back to Nationals Park for a grand tour of the nation’s newest baseball stadium. During our little excursion, our guide Maggie explained that this is the first Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, -certified green ballpark in the country because of its energy-efficient lighting, 6,300-square-foot green roof, electric golf carts, bike racks, and unique underground water filtration system.

We left the shiny glass baseball palace and headed across the busy South Capital Street Bridge, dodging busted bottles and zipping cars. We were suddenly on the Anacostia River Trail, paralleling the muddy river and looking at small marinas, colorful fishermen, Navy ships and stone-still herons.

We stopped at the Urban Tree House, where the Student Conservation Association teaches city kids about the environment. As part of the Great American Cleanup, local school children were picking up trash along the banks of the Anacostia.

Our next stop was Marvin Gaye Park, where we visited a farmers’ market in a building covered in glass murals made from pieces of colored glass, celebrating flowers, fish and D.C.’s king of soul.

As we rode through Southeast, 15 white folks on bikes, we got plenty of looks. But everyone was friendly. Many people laughed and waved.

What struck me most was how pretty most of the neighborhoods were. This was no ghetto. In fact, Annapolis Gardens and Obery Court in Annapolis look worse than any place we rode by in Southeast. The houses were modest and a bit rundown, but folks were planting flowers and cutting their grass just like around Annapolis on a spring Saturday.

As I rode my bike across the Benning Road Bridge, past those places that had always looked so scary from a distance in my car, I realized that it is this chasm of the unknown that makes us fear the Southeasts of the world.

And I heard the encouraging words of Amchat Edwards, the dreadlocked young black man, leading the cleanup at the Urban Tree House: “The Anacostia flows into the Potomac, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. So I guess you could say we all really share the same watershed.”

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