Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Anacostia River

Washington's hard-luck Anacostia River may also 
be the city's ace in the hole. [February 2012]


By Jody Argo Schroath
Photographs by David Owen Hawxhurst

Scramble into a dinghy at the National Arboretum landing and push off upriver toward the secret wonderland that is Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., and you'll understand within the space of a few hundred yards why the Anacostia River is both one of the saddest, most put-upon bodies of water on Chesapeake Bay and at the same time one of its most varied and glorious. From your vantage point in the dinghy, look downriver. Visible above the tree-lined shore is a clear reminder that the high-density, high-powered center of the nation lies just around the last bend. Turn back to look at the Arboretum's landing, and you'll see a half-acre's worth of flotsam trapped by that jutting structure. Some of this flotsam is ordinary castoff, like Styrofoam cups and aluminum beer cans; some is considerably less savory, like used diapers and worse. These items offend the eye, but the water that carries them is worse. Much worse. Bacteria levels regularly rise to 500 times acceptable levels after a rain. And then there are the alarming levels metals and chemicals. In short, the water here can kill you, or at least make you quite sick. Yet before you have time to become   sufficiently alarmed and make a leap to regain solid ground, you have turned a bend and suddenly find yourself floating under a canopy of old trees, whose ponderous limbs spread leaves and cooling shade ten or twenty feet above your head. At once the 20th century fades and the dirty urban river seems far behind. Emerging from the leafy tunnel and once again in the sunshine, you half expect to find some evidence of the Cheshire Cat on a nearby limb. Is that a smile hovering above the branch of that ancient oak? Perhaps not. Yet the unexpected presence of a series of little ponds within the stream, the partial dams and mini-earthworks, the bright white and pink flowers of the water lilies and the profusion of birds baffles and delights. It feels like Wonderland. Surely, you tell yourself, this can't be the river of staggering pollution levels and discarded diapers. But indeed it is. For this short but intensely vital river is bookended by a view of the Washington Monument and, a mere eight miles later, beauty and water gardens. . . .

"Jody! Jody! Wake up! Everyone wants to know if we've gone far enough to suit you? We're starting to bump the bottom."

With a start I shook off my reverie and turned my attention to the present. Not that my mind had been so far away from the present at all. I was indeed drifting through the water courses that thread through Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. And my friend Kathy and I had indeed scrambled into a dinghy at the National Arboretum, where we had joined members of the Port of Washington Yacht Club on their Anacostia excursion. The flotilla had started that morning at Gangplank Marina on the Washington Channel and arrived at the Arboretum for a picnic lunch. Kathy and I had hopped aboard for the last leg of the trip.

"Well?" Kathy prompted again. 
Thump. Oops, I needed to stop daydreaming and start paying attention. 

"Yes, yes, this is fine" I said as we skittered over the sand bottom yet again. "I definitely think we've gone about as far as we can without getting out to push." Frankly, the thought of jumping into the water—no matter how inviting and innocent it looked at the moment—gave me the willies.

A minute later, however, the beauty of the gardens and the warmth of the sun had worked their magic and I was musing again: Kenilworth Gardens came about when Walter Shaw, a Civil War veteran from Maine settled in Washington after the war. Shaw bought a bit of upriver marshland, dug a small pond and imported a few water lilies from his home state. Then he created more ponds and planted more lilies until he had 28 ponds and a commercial nursery. Tourists would travel to enjoy the ponds and the lilies. After Shaw died, his daughter continued the business, and in 1938 convinced Congress to purchase the land after the Army Corps of Engineers threatened to dredge it under.

In preserving Kenilworth Gardens as a national park, Congress also inadvertently saved the last bit of the original marsh that once entirely encompassed what is now Washington D.C. You can visit the marsh today and picture what the District was like when it became the nation's capital. In fact, the Founding Fathers imagined their capital as a kind of New World Venice, Italy, with a network of charming canals weaving the city together. When the reality became a series of stinking, pestilential ditches, the marshes were filled and the sewage redirected to flow directly into the Anacostia River. In the centuries that followed, the assault on the Anacostia was compounded with industrial waste, effluent from the Navy Yard, a power plant, a cement factory and myriad other sites. It is no wonder that by the 20th century the Anacostia was declared one of the most dangerously polluted rivers in the country. Finally, organizations such as the Anacostia Watershed Society, Seafarers Yacht Club and the Earth Conservation Corps waded in, politically and literally, to try to save the river. Contributing to the river's woes has been the political reality that it flanks the District's least economically privileged areas. Over the years, elaborate plans have been made to bring back the river and jumpstart the community, but most have fallen short or never gotten off the ground at all. But now, even in the throes of a staggering economy, the area is a hotbed of building and revitalization projects. In fact, the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast and its first cousin, the Washington Channel in Southwest, are being groomed for a starring role as the capital's next big thing. The river and its waterfront may have been discovered at last!

And that's how I came to be daydreaming through Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on a warm and sunny summer afternoon. A few months earlier, on a visit to one of the Port of Washington Yacht Club's evening gatherings under the party pavilion of Gangplank Marina, I had gotten my first inkling of things to come. The Southwest waterfront project called the Wharf (named in honor of the nearby Maine Avenue Fish Market—or Wharf) was of especial interest to the Gangplank group since it will directly affect the marina where they make their home. That particular project, they explained, involves rebuilding the entire waterfront between the fish market and the Coast Guard Station, including the Capitol Yacht Club and Gangplank Marina. Both those boating facilities will be renovated, and four new piers will be built into the channel to hold the tour boats that use the area as their base. The $1.5 billion project, being developed by D.C. developer Hoffman-Madison Marquette, will also modernize the fish market, see the construction of office and residential buildings, retail space and underground parking facilities. The Wharf project, being undertaken in conjunction with the District, is scheduled to get under way this year. And, explained Jason Kopp, president of the Gangplank Slipholders' Association and its liaison with the Wharf project, this is just the tip of the development iceberg for the area.

So a few months later, when club members invited me to join their dinghy excursion upriver, I naturally jumped at the chance. But before the trip, I brushed up by doing some research. Kopp was right. The Wharf project is indeed just the tip of the iceberg. It is all a bit overwhelming. The more I read and the more people I talked with, the more my eyes glazed over and my brain swam with large numbers. There were names and more names. Numbers and more numbers. Anacostia Riverwalk, Capitol Riverfront, Canal Park, the Wharf, Waterfront Station, Southwest Waterfront, Diamond Teague Park, the Front. Another, a project called the Yards, will encompass 5.5 million square feet, including 1.8 million square feet of office space, 2,800 new residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail and a whiz-bang new riverfront park. Some of the projects—like the Yard's riverfront park and Diamond Teague Park below Nationals Stadium—are well under way. Others, like Maritime Plaza, which will be east of the Navy Yard, have yet to start.

But I didn't want to wait until all these projects were finished. I wanted to go now and see it all in person. So first I took the dinghy trip. A few months later, I came up by boat.


It was spitting cold rain as I labored slowly up the Potomac on the short hop from National Harbor to the Washington Channel early one morning in late September. I had slowed the Albin 28 to a crawl as I peered this way and that through great rolling clouds of fog that hung over the river's summer-warmed water. Warily, I searched the mist for the telltale shadow of a tug and barge or a ship, but my concentration was repeatedly shattered by the heart-stopping roar of jets taking off and landing at National Airport. North of National Harbor the channel swings first to the western shore, passing under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge then along the Alexandria waterfront, then back to the east side past Geisboro Point. At Hains Point, the channel splits in three—the Potomac channel passing to the west of Hains Point, the Washington Channel following its opposite side, and the Anacostia channel branching east and then disappearing into the mist beyond the Frederick Douglas Bridge. I headed up the Washington Channel to look for my assigned slip at Gangplank Marina.

A short time later, my head was spinning again as I sat, comfortable and dry, in the office of Coastal Properties' J. Nickerson, who manages the marina. Coastal Properties not only manages Gangplank, but Diamond Teague Piers just down the road—and the marinas at nearby National Harbor and Fort Washington. So, understandably, Nickerson is intimately acquainted with the projects slated for the waterfront area. With his help, the big picture started to come into better focus, but I still was counting on my field trip to finally make things clear. For a field trip, though, you need a fellow traveler, so I called my friend Kathy (who had already taken the dinghy trip with me) and cajoled her into joining me the following day, which just happened to coincide with Southwest D.C.'s Art Fest. "There may even be sock monkeys," I said encouragingly.

There were sock monkeys, as it turned out, under construction by anyone interested at a table set up in a pocket park called 7th Street Landing just outside the marina gate. But better than sock monkeys, there was also a jazz band with a fine scat singer, and King Ribs BBQ stand, awaft with smoky goodness, all in the same little park. As far as I was concerned, I thought as I waited for Kathy to arrive off the Metro, this trip was already a big success. I was just asking King Ribs owner Bufus Buchanan when the first batch of barbecue would be ready when Kathy arrived—and immediately redirected me to the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Rats, the barbecue would have to wait. To get to the market we simply turned left on Water Street and headed toward I-395. During the urban renewal projects of the 1960s, the city tried to eliminate the fish market, but its vendors showed up anyway, so officials compromised by allowing the permanently fixed floating fish barges—a sort of throwback to the old buyboat system—to anchor in the shadow of the elevated superhighway. As Kathy and I walked the few blocks to the market, it was clear that big changes were coming. Several of the buildings were already boarded up and others were being used as temporary headquarters for the planners and builders. 

"The plan in this area is to eliminate Water Street altogether," I told Kathy as if I knew what I was talking about. "Instead, there will be office and residential buildings, lots of parks for walking and cycling and renovated marinas."

"What are they going to do with the people who live on their boats at Gangplank?" Kathy asked.

"The boats will move a dock or two at a time to temporary docks just up the Channel," I said. "Then they'll move back once their new docks are complete and the next group will move to the temporary docks, and so forth. They actually have it all worked out. I saw a drawing."

By this time we had arrived at the fish market. Everywhere we looked there were long tables filled to the brim with ice and glistening with fish and shellfish of every size and description imaginable. It was marvelous! And chaotic! Behind the tables, battalions of men and women negotiated with customers, all of whom seemed to know what they were doing . . . unlike us, who merely strolled from table to table and barge to barge trying to take it all in. Some of the barges specialized in crabs or crayfish or oysters, some in local fish and others in varieties from around the world. A few of the barges were also restaurants, with their menus posted on large boards above or beside the windows. Here again, the people in line all seemed to know what they were doing, while we seemed to be the only baffled tourists. We picked a line at random and studied the menu as we waited. We didn't have much time, because things were moving fast. We picked the first three or four things that appealed to us and a few minutes later carried off containers of cream of crab soup, clam strips, stewed tomatoes and hush puppies. We wandered off to a nearby park to consume it. Some of it turned out to be delicious and some of it, well, just okay. It would take a lot of research to discover what each stand did particularly well, but it was a project I'd be willing to take on.

More than a little full, we strolled back along Water Street and then crossed Maine Avenue to find Arena Stage, where the Arts Festival had dozens of exhibits and activities going on throughout the area, and on Arena Theater's three stages. 

"Our mission," I explained to Kathy when she suggested we see a performance of Oklahoma!, which was also playing at Arena Theater that day, "is to visit the sites we can easily see in the waterfront area. And to see if I can sort out at least some of the big projects by going there. I think we can now tick The Wharf off of our list, at least. I don't know whether Arena Stage is part of that or not."

Whether it was or not, we contented ourselves with a tour of the beautiful new $135-million renovation and expansion of one of the city's oldest and now second-largest (after the Kennedy Center) not-for-profit theaters. The Mead Center for American Theater, as it is officially known, encompasses 200,000 square feet with three stages and a restaurant operated by well-known Spanish chef Jose Andres.


"Well, this is certainly convenient for boaters," Kathy said as we regained the sidewalk. "Where next?"

"Let's go find Nationals Park and Diamond Teague," I replied, steering us by a Safeway supermarket and the Waterfront Metro stop. Across the street, St. Augustine Episcopal Church was holding an Art Fest flea market and book sale. But I took a deep breath and marched Kathy resolutely on. We headed south to explore the neighborhood around Fort Lesley J. McNair, which strategically occupies a substantial portion of the Washington Channel waterfront and the mouth of the Anacostia River, a position it shares with the Coast Guard Station at Buzzard Point and the Anacostia Naval Station on the opposite shore. According to a map Nickerson had handed me in a packet of information, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will eventually cut north of Fort McNair along P Street SW, connecting the National Mall to the Southwest waterfront and to Nationals Park and Diamond Teague Piers. Then it will split, with one portion crossing the Anacostia along the Frederick Douglas Bridge and following the river through the long greenway known as the Anacostia Park, eventually connecting with the existing Bladensburg Trail. 

We stuck to the Nationals Park side. After wandering through a lovely old residential area adjacent to fort McNair, we found ourselves in the blighted remnants of one of the city's ill-fated urban renewal projects of the 1960s, which effectively cut up the area's old neighborhoods, razing acres of homes and then crisscrossing the now-empty lots with highways and interstates. The city hopes that the area's new projects will at least in some measure right those wrongs by adding housing, offices, retail space and parks and more parks, effectively handing Southeast and Southwest back their neighborhoods. Whether this will serve the area's traditional residents well or ill, is open to argument, but they are plans driven largely by the District of Columbia government itself. And there's no question that it will improve the area's accessibility and desirability for residents and visitors alike.

In the meantime, Kathy and I found ourselves at an unexpected dead end with the Nationals Park in sight. We solved the problem by cutting through a couple of debris strewn vacant lots, then between a couple of empty buildings and emerged triumphant and mildly relieved in front of the city's shiny new baseball stadium. We could have gone in to catch a game—one was just under way—but instead walked around the outside of the stadium in search of Diamond Teague Park. Three-quarters of the way around, we spotted it, tucked neatly and a little awkwardly between a couple of empty industrial sites. The park, which opened last year, serves as a landing for water taxis from Alexandria and National Harbor, allowing people in those areas to attend a game without worrying about parking or land transportation of any kind. A great idea, but with one flaw: For the time being, however, the park does not allow visiting boaters to tie up in their own boats—though plans for that are in the works. Kayaks and canoes, however, can launch from the site. The park, by the way, is named for a young Earth Conservation Corps member from the area who was murdered just months before he was to leave for college on an environmental science scholarship. The Earth Conservation Corps—a group of young volunteers who work to clean up the Anacostia—occupies the 1903 pumping station that once provided steam for the U.S. Capitol building.


"What next?" Kathy asked after we had studied the empty park for a few minutes through the chain-link fence.

"Next stop, the Navy Yard," I said. "And on the way, the Yards and Yards Park."

"Are those part of the Navy Yard?" Kathy asked.

"Yes and no," I replied, trying to sort it out myself. The Washington Navy Yard was founded in 1799 along the Anacostia River and was used both for protection for the city—which didn't always work out, since the yard itself was burned by the Navy to keep it falling into British hands during the War of 1812—and as a shipyard and development facility.

"But what about this Yards thing?" Kathy persisted.

"I'm getting to that," I replied. During World War I, the Navy annexed more land to facilitate manufacturing for its equipment. After World War II, however, the Navy Yard became an administrative, rather than manufacturing, base of operations, and the Navy Yard Annex land and buildings were turned over the General Services Administration (GSA). In 2003, the GSA asked for proposals to develop the site, eventually awarding the project to Forest City Washington. Now work has already begun on the Yards, which will repurpose some of the older and more interesting buildings as office, retail and housing and build others to create 2,800 residential units, as well as gobs of office and retail space . . . and some nice riverfront parks.

We heard the Yards Park before we spotted it, so we angled off in the direction of the music and were soon joined by a half-dozen young people headed in the same direction. Clearly there was an "event" to which we had not been invited. Not that we minded. We followed the path to a section of finished Anacostia Riverwalk that intersected the park and would soon join it to the stadium. It was a most unusual and entertaining park, with terraces, a bridge straight out of the Jetsons and a broad shallow concrete and stone canal that actually invited children to jump in and play. Comfortable curvy benches and terraces invited sitting and conversation. This was one nifty park! The space-age bridge, however, seemed to be closed for the event, so we detoured through the old buildings that will be The Yards and out to busy M Street to find the nearest gate into the Navy Yard. Along the way we dawdled through the Department of Transportation's fascinating pathways and outdoor exhibits of transportation based items. A couple of blocks later we presented ourselves at the Navy Yard's M Street SW Gate and were refused entrance.

"You will have to enter by the O Street Gate and then check in and show your ID and get a pass," the guard said. "And the museum closes at 5."

"O Street!" Kathy groaned. "That's practically miles away!" That clam-strip lunch was wearing thin.

We trudged off in the direction of O Street, following the high wall of the Navy Yard. Decidedly dragging, we arrived at the gate at last, went into the office, gave them a lot of personal information and were finally awarded with a white pedestrian pass and a map of the Navy Yard. What seemed like many more blocks later, we found the museum. It was huge and comprehensive, tracing the history of the Navy from its founding to its present, including Arctic and space exploration. It would have been a terrific way to spend an afternoon . . . or six. If only we'd had the energy. We split up for a quick visit. I shamelessly knocked off centuries of Naval history at a single bound and was waiting for the more conscientious Kathy at the exit within 20 minutes.

While I was waiting, I discovered that we could exit the museum though the gate that leads to the venerable old battleship U.S.S. Barry and thence to a completed portion of the Riverwalk, mere minutes away from Yards Park. We couldn't have used that coming in, but we sure could use it going out. Which we did, not even stopping to visit the Barry. We calculated that we had just enough square feet-power left in us to get back to the marina. And the little park with the scat-singing jazz band, the sock monkeys and the barbecue.

Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting at a table, listening to music, eating a thoroughly delicious barbecued chicken dinner and drinking bottles and bottles of cold water.

"I'm sure this area is going to get nothing but nicer," I said, "but I've got no problems at all with it as it is now."

"Me too," Kathy managed to say between bites and while opening the extra container of cole slaw they had given us since it was so late in the day. "But I sure will be happier when that Riverwalk trail is finished.

"Yes, then we can walk past the Navy Yard to Congressional Cemetery—where two vice presidents and fifty-five thousand other people are buried—and the old RFK Stadium, which will eventually be something cool too, I'm sure. And on the other side of the Navy Yard, there will be something called Maritime Plaza, with its own set of new buildings, mind-numbing numbers and parks. Really, you could spend months here and never get to the Smithsonian."

This time Kathy merely noddedas she reached for another piece of chicken.

The next morning, I pulled the Albin 28 out of slip F-28 at Gangplank Marina and turned up the Anacostia River. I stopped at James Creek Marina to buy diesel then motored upriver until the depth forced me to double back. Much of the river was still bordered by the detritus of industry long departed. But there were also signs of life on the water—Diamond Teague Park, the Yards Park, the Motor Boat Club, Seafarers Yacht Club. On the way out, I looked over at Buzzards Point, currently occupied by a small marina. Soon, this too may be a mixed use development and parks. At Hains Point, I turned south to begin the long and lovely trek out the Potomac River. I smiled to myself. In the refrigerator was a piece of King Ribs barbecued chicken. Oh, yes, this was definitely worth the trip!