July 31, 2008

The Anacostia River

by Jessica Wright, Community Blogger.

Wildlife, like this turtle (perched on the large log), live amidst soda bottles and other trash.

Once a thriving river, years of neglect have left the Anacostia River so polluted that it is unsafe for swimming, it is uninhabitable for many animal species, and the fish that are able to survive have been plagued with high rates of cancer. I believe the story of the Anacostia symbolizes much of the turmoil that has faced communities east of the river throughout the years.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take a free boat tour of the Anacostia River through Maryland’s Bladensburg Waterfront Park. This tour provided some fascinating history of not only the river but the surrounding area. The river was once a vital part of the lives of the local Nanchotank people, providing abundant supplies of fish and supporting numerous other forms of wildlife. I was amazed to learn that the river used to be 40 feet deep at points and a mile wide. The deepest part today is a mere 12 feet, and it is far from being a mile across. Over a century ago, the water of the Anacostia River was already troubled with serious pollution. During the tour, visitors can see low brick walls that were built along the river’s edge. These walls were constructed in the late 1800s, when polluted water was escaping to the city and making people sick. The walls were meant to make the river flow straight, which was a largely unsuccessful effort.

Today, a renewed effort to restore the Anacostia River has brought slow change to the area. River cleanups are sponsored 4 to 5 times a year, collecting hundreds of bags of trash and tires. The night before our tour, D.C. experienced heavy rainfall, filling the river with a fresh supply of trash. The water was brown and murky. It was hard for me to believe that the river’s state was actually an improvement over past years.

I cannot help but think of the parallels between the river and the communities that are removed from the rest of D.C. by the Anacostia’s banks. While D.C.’s more famous river, the Potomac, has undergone revitalization, the Anacostia River has been neglected for many years. In the same way that neglect has led to pollution of the river, neglect of communities east of the river has led to high rates of poverty and violence. The contrast between these communities and the powerful and affluent areas of D.C. can be seen by merely crossing the river. Recent interest in the Anacostia River has brought about improvements; similarly, recent initiatives to improve Southeast (I think of the Hope VI program and New Communities specifically) have been working to undo the damage done over the years. Despite these efforts, it is easy to question whether things are really improving when there is still so much left to be done.

Clearly, improving the neglected communities of Southeast has greater complications than improving the Anacostia River. Perhaps, though, we can learn a lesson from the river’s caretakers. Cleaning up the river has taken the efforts of numerous individuals, often requiring them to get down and dirty, tackling the problem of pollution hands-on. Addressing the problems plaguing communities east of the Anacostia will require that residents get involved and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to “get dirty” in the process of improving their neighborhoods.

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