In Washington DC, at places like RFK Stadium and Nationals Park, millions of non-residents have set foot in the Southeast part of the District, where the overwhelming majority are African-American. A smaller percentage, however, have ventured across the river to the historic neighborhood of Anacostia or nearby ones like Congress Heights.
Slowly, things are changing, as this part of the District is finally beginning to see some redevelopment come their way. The biggest and most recent example is the ground that was broken last week for the new Department of Homeland Security HQs, which will rise on the campus of St Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Bloggers are also bringing a lot of attention to the area. Three were spotlighted on The Kojo Nnamdi Show several weeks ago. David Garber’s story is particularly compelling. Described by City Paper as “one of Anacostia’s few white guys,” he moved there in 2007 after growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. A pioneer of sorts, Garber has organized events in the community. His blog (And Now Anacostia) has documented life there and has served as a rich source of information.
Curious to see first-hand what I’ve been reading and hearing about, I decided to pay this area a visit yesterday morning. Departing from our Alexandria home, I crossed the Potomac on the new Wilson Bridge, then zipped along a mostly empty I-295 North. I’d taken this route before on my way to parts north, but for the first time, when I saw the sign for Malcolm X Avenue, I took that exit.
It’s never easy talking about race, but that was somewhat on my mind as minutes later my car stopped at the light to make the left on to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Seeing this black world, I employed a technique to deal with my prejudices. When a stereotyped, heuristic-driven thought ignites prejudice and fear, I say to myself, those thoughts are wrong.
At the bottom of the hill, as Martin Luther King Jr Blvd approaches Good Hope Road, I drove past a fascinating scene. One new building there signals the change that is coming to Anacostia. Other older ones reminded me of what I had seen in developing countries. And all this within walking distance of our white-domed Capitol where billions in spending are set forth each year.
Waiting for the signal that was obviously not timed for the slower weekend traffic, I then took a right on to Good Hope Road. On the sidewalks, local citizens exchanged smiles and pleasantries, perhaps noting how beautiful the day had begun. At the next light a short distance away, I turned right on to 14th Street.
I was getting excited now. Ahead lay houses and a firehouse, and my destination up on the top of the hill. Reaching W street I turned left and there it was, Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass (National Historic Site). I had read about the dramatic view of the city from there, and when I took it in, I scolded myself. Almost 15 years we’ve been here in Washington, and only now was I standing where one of our greatest citizens helped guide the course of our country in its most difficult times.
Anacostia has a rich history, including being the first suburb of the city, periods when it thrived, and the intense pride residents have felt for Douglass, who called Cedar Hill home for his last eighteen years. If you do anything in this area, visit this place. It has a visitor’s center on W Street that includes a gift shop with books.
The guided tour was excellent and we were allowed to take photos. Walking the grounds afterwards, I met a group of bikers who were taking Cultural DC’s tour of Anacostia. I felt a tinge of jealousy because that’s got to be the best way to see it, provided you can handle the hill work. If you drive, be aware that slowing down on the major streets to gaze is a tricky adventure. Try to stay in the right hand land and be aware that a slow driver is a nuisance. Having said that, Saturday morning seems best.
In their book, The Guide to Black Washington, authors Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria Goodwin write:
Anacostia is frequently referred to as the city’s forgotten neighborhood. Construction of the long-awaited Metro Green Line subway will, it is hope, bring the economic development to transform Anacostia into a thriving neighborhood.
They made that observation 20 years ago. It’s good to see that this part of our area is poised to see some needed change.