As transplants from other parts of the country who fell in love with the District not long before we fell in love with each other, my wife and I thought long and hard about into which neighborhood we wished to establish roots. After much research, late night walks, early morning strolls, through several seasons and along many streets, we came to know that Historic Anacostia was that neighborhood. Now, after we two have become three with the addition of our son, that decision made more than three years ago is all the more confirmed.
Celebrating our son's first birthday at our place in Anacostia
Here are nine reasons why my family is happy to call Anacostia home:
1. Our community is a community
Prior to moving here, we would walk down 14th at U Street NW and be anonymous faces in the crowd. Flip those two quadrant-designating letters and walk down 14th and U Street SE in Historic Anacostia, and that anonymity is replaced with a sense of community. Good mornings, happy holidays, and head nods from random passers-by greet you with neighborly ease in our community. You are not seen as a fleshy obstacle between someone and their destination. You are seen, and acknowledged, as a person. It makes a felt difference that gives a small town feel in our corner of the nation’s capital.
2. An art-infused heart
Our neighborhood has an art-infused heart with a bear hug of culture for anyone who embraces it. The Anacostia Arts Center has pumped life through that heart since 2013. Tucked inside its multi-functional space, the Arts Center houses Vivid Solutions Gallery as well as a foyer that features emerging local artists and established pros. It hosts performances in its black box theater and lounge where we’ve experienced poetry readings, burlesque shows, jazz concerts, improvisational theater, beatbox, experiential art installations, and more...and more and more.
Next door is Honfleur Gallery with its own rotating exhibitions and Craig Kraft Studios, the working studio space of the District’s very own neon light artist who infuses gas and glass with a colorful mixture of cultures and creativity to produce engaging pieces. Around the corner is the Anacostia Playhouse which brings live theater to the neighborhood through a combination of new works and established classics like the perennial holiday favorite, Black Nativity, written by Langston Hughes and passionately staged by Theater Alliance. If you wish to be transported this coming holiday season, get tickets early before they sell out. You can thank me later.
If all of that isn’t enough to feed your artistic sensibility, you can duck around the corner and support the next generation of artists in action at Project Create DC, a compelling local nonprofit that exposes kids to any and all manner of creative expression.
3. The great outdoors in the center of the city
Steps from the heart of Historic Anacostia is Anacostia Park. Running along the shores of the Anacostia River, it’s one of the largest green spaces in the District with a dizzying array of activities. It boasts ball fields galore, myriad basketball courts, tennis courts, an outdoor pool, an exercise facility, a playground shaped like, ARRRRRR, a pirate ship, an outdoor roller skating rink, picnicking spots, an outdoor fitness station, and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail where walkers, joggers, and cyclists share the road as well as the views of the river and the Washington Monument in the distance.
The most outstanding new development for Anacostia Park and its Riverwalk is undoubtedly the Kenilworth Garden extension of the trail. It is arguably the most enjoyable stretch of trail anywhere in the region. Opening a year ago to complete an unbroken ribbon from the foot of the Frederick Douglass Bridge to Greenbelt, Maryland, the only traffic you need to watch for is deer leaping across your path.
Beyond Anacostia Park, one of my favorite trails is the largely unknown, rough-hewn gem of the Civil War Defenses of Washington Trail. Within a few steps along this trail, you’re enveloped by the woods with the concrete bustle of the District fading behind. Hike for a short stroll or a healthy distance with several entry points to suit your mood and stamina. Get lucky and keep your eyes peeled, and you may see a wild turkey.
4. Life on the river
Maybe it’s my Seattleite sensibility that yearns for a shoreline of some sort to define boundaries and interrupt the built environment of a city with an expression of natural vitality but I never tire of the Anacostia River. Sure, it’s D.C.’s other river. Its fish aren’t fit for consumption. I won’t dive into its water anytime soon. But it’s our river. It’s getting healthier everyday, and becoming more and more a hub of activity and community. Marinas are springing up along its shores and filling the water with leisure maritime traffic. Kayaks for rent allow you to explore from a more intimate vantage point. And the view of the sunset from its Anacostian shore illuminates our Federal City in dazzling color.
Narrower than its sister, the Potomac, the Anacostia is easily traversable on foot across either South Capitol Street’s Frederick Douglass Bridge or the 11th Street Bridge, making it a leisurely walk to The Yards and expanding adjacent developments with all they have to offer. In the coming years, that walk will become all the more notable with the 11th Street Bridge Park, an insanely innovative public space which will transform old piers into a destination for relaxation, education, entertainment, and new engagements with the river. It stands to knit together the two very diverse neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia into a shared river-focused community.
5. Everywhere is near here
Historic Anacostia is happy to host you with all it offers but it just as easily opens doors to that which lies beyond. Whether your preferred mode of transportation is car, rideshare, bus, Metrorail, bike, or feet, everywhere is near here. The Navy Yard and newly relaunched Wharf are moments away by whatever transport you choose. Take the Green Line a handful of stops, and we’re tucked in our seats at Gallery Place AMC or Atlantic Plumbing for the latest flick. Enjoy a stroll across the Frederick Douglass Bridge, and slide into home plate for a Nationals game - or kick off next year’s D.C. United season at their new digs. Hail a car and board your flight from National uberfast. Merge onto 295 a couple blocks from our house, blink, and you’ll be riding the ferris wheel at National Harbor or checking out what all the fuss is about at the new MGM Grand - or easily getting anywhere else along 395, the Beltway, Rock Creek Park or Suitland Parkway, traffic notwithstanding.
6. Passionate entrepreneurs committed to the community
Opening one’s own business takes a special passion. Opening one’s own business in Anacostia takes that special passion combined with a deep commitment to the community. We’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some of those passionate people. Anika Hobbs who operates Nubian Hueman is a joy and a light - who also happens to have doubled the space of her ethnic-centered boutique inside the Anacostia Arts Center just recently. Shawn Lightfoot feeds and caffeinates us at Art-Drenaline while training local folks in culinary skills. Jerri Evans of Turning Natural infuses each delicious fresh juice and smoothie made with a passion for healthful living that emanates from her very core. Fatma Nayir, the Mama of Mama’s Pizza Kitchen, serves her pies with a longstanding commitment to the community few can match. These people and so many more knit together our commercial core with heart and passion and purpose.
7. Life, elevated
Again, I’ll attribute the value I ascribe to this as nurtured by my Seattle birthplace. If you ever grow weary of the nearly uniform flatness of D.C.’s swampy typography throughout its other wards, come to Historic Anacostia. Within a block or two of the Metro, you’ll be panting and bracing yourself on your knees before summiting and spinning around to glimpse some of the most dramatic views the District has to offer. If you want to channel that incline into a cycling workout to remember, join the mighty Hills of Anacostia Saturday ride sponsored by BicycleSpace. For a more leisurely, more historic experience of those views, check out the grounds of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. That view from a rocker on the front porch? That’s what my wife was gazing upon before she noticed I had gotten down on one knee for a life-altering question. And the story behind that tree around back in the midst of the roundabout? Ask us.
8. History that is present and profound
In a city defined by history, Anacostia has some of the most unique and compelling stories to tell. The heart of Historic Anacostia was founded in 1854 as Uniontown, the first planned suburb of then-Washington City in Washington County. A whites-only community intending to serve Navy Yard workers who would commute across the bridge, it fell on hard times as a result of the Civil War and later economic panic of 1873 before being integrated and gentrified by a wealthy African American citizen, Frederick Douglass.
Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, one of the major thoroughfares of Historic Anacostia, was originally known by a more destinationally descriptive name: Asylum Road. It led from the foot of the 11th Street Bridge to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the sprawling campus of the first federally operated psychiatric hospital in the United States.
Most compelling among the stories for me is that which saw John R. Elvans, a local hardware merchant, purchase the 375 acre farm of David and Julia Barry on April 23, 1867. He did so on behalf of and with funding from the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands for the purpose of dividing the farm into one acre plots to sell to formerly enslaved and free-born peoples. This path of home ownership provided a way out of the squalor of cramped alleys in Washington City and Georgetown and into a life of their own making.
The history of this early community is etched throughout the neighborhood. Street signs still bear the names of the Civil War generals and abolitionists they were meant to honor. Three of the churches founded by the early community in 1867 and shortly thereafter still worship together. And General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, gave his name not only to Howard Road in the neighborhood but to the university up the Green Line that was founded the same year with proceeds from the sale of those one-acre plots.
9. A future being defined in this moment
In the context of this rich history is a future being written before one’s very eyes, rife with all of the possibility and challenges of development. New apartment housing, the first Starbucks east of the river, a Busboys and Poets, major redevelopment of the commercial core of Historic Anacostia, a renewed energy behind Poplar Point possibilities, a new Frederick Douglass Bridge carrying South Capitol Street, and an uprooting of the Barry Farm Public Housing community in favor of mixed use development is all in the offing. Community voices chime in through historic neighborhood board actions, an innovative community land trust experiment, a fair housing lawsuit, protests, and a march in an effort to shape the form development takes. It all brings an energy, an air of anticipation, and reflection on what it means to be a community.
Amidst it all, Anacostia is a community wrestling with what it will become. For me and my family, we hope it does so in a way that preserves what it is, and what drew us here from the start.