“It's Our River”

Exhibit at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum Examines Urban Rivers in Crisis, Including the Anacostia.

Members of the DC Mariners and Oyster Harbor Boat Club prepare for the Howard University Homecoming Capitol Classic. Throughout the years residents have used the Anacostia River for various recreational purposes. Photo Credit: George W. Stewart

It's been called Washington's forgotten river – for a reason. Years of neglect and abuse left the Anacostia River polluted and unhealthy. Since opening last fall, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” at the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) explores the history surrounding the Anacostia and features community and government efforts to restore this and other urban waterways around the world. The exhibit is the first under ACM's new expanded mission, focusing on universal issues affecting urban communities.

About the Curators

“Reclaiming the Edge” is the product of a two-year study developed by historian-journalist John Wennersten and ACM senior historian Gail Lowe. When Lowe looked for ideas for new exhibits, she asked the community for suggestions. “We asked, What are some of the issues urban communities face? Clearly in DC, we wanted to see what's happening to our water.” During community discussions many people talked about ways to improve the river, from cleanup efforts to development projects. “There are a lot of people who are involved,” Lowe stated. “Even those not connected physically to the river wanted to do something.”

While doing initial research, Lowe came across Wennersten's 2008 book, “Anacostia: The Death and Birth of An American River.” Wennersten is a Capitol Hill resident and emeritus professor of American history at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, who is known for his work regarding Chesapeake Bay affairs. His book gives an environmental view of the Anacostia's history. As co-curator for the exhibit, Wennersten has brought the issue of water conservation to a broader audience. “This museum has a long-standing commitment to the community,” he said. “This exhibit will bring the issue closer to this community.”

Anacostia's History

The Anacostia River was once home to the Nacotchtank, a tribe of coastal-living Native Americans. After famed explorer John Smith sailed the river, then known as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, the Anacostia became a major trading area for fish, beaver, and tobacco. However, between 1871 and 1873 the city government identified the Anacostia as a sewage conduit. By the end of World War II the river had also become a social barrier, as more African-Americans moved to what was considered “substandard housing” east of the river. When the first section of I-295 (Anacostia Freeway) opened in 1964, it further disconnected residents from the river and each other.

By 1993 American Rivers named the Anacostia the fourth most endangered river in North America. As a result, the city government began to make changes to revive the river and its surrounding communities. For instance, in 2008 Nationals Park opened as the first LEED-certified green stadium for a professional sports team. Two years later the city passed the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act (aka the DC Bag Tax) to raise money for river cleanup.

Worldwide Views

Although the exhibit focuses mainly on restoration efforts in DC, it also shows similar efforts around the world. One such project, the upcoming Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, located near the Thames in East London, has a connection to the Anacostia: Andrew Altman, CEO of the now-defunct Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, served as CEO of the London Legacy Development Corporation, responsible for the project. Other locations include Louisville (Ohio River), Los Angeles (Los Angeles River), Pittsburgh (Allegheny and Monongahela rivers), and Shanghai (Suzhou Creek).

Inspiration and Memories

“Reclaiming the Edge” also includes 16 pieces of river-inspired art, such as local photographer Bruce McNeil's stylized photo essay reflecting on the Anacostia's history, and selections from Chinese artist Zhang Jian-Jun's 36-panel work, “River.” Wennersten's favorite piece is “Talking Trash,” a mobile created by Smithsonian interns, featuring a school of fish made up of recycled bottles. “This was a great way to bring the interns into the conversation,” Wennersten said. “It's really creative.”

The exhibit also includes “River Stories,” a video series spotlighting local residents and their connections to the Anacostia. One features falconer and environmentalist Rodney Stotts, a former drug dealer, who credits his work cleaning up the Anacostia and other urban waterways with helping him turn from crime. “We had people in our neighborhoods where we were trying to clean who would ask us, 'Why are you here? Do you really think it will make a difference?'” says Stotts in the video. “We wanted everyone to see that if you wanted change, you have to make change.”

Why It Matters

Both curators see “Reclaiming the Edge” as a call to action. “The health of urban rivers is an indication of the health of the city surrounding them,” said Lowe. “Water is non-redeemable, so we have to care for each drop.” To emphasize this point, a section entitled “You Have an Impact” displays three shopping carts as the type of refuse found in the Anacostia, and highlights what visitors can do help curb the flow of pollutants.

Another benefit: connecting both sides of the city. “In the past, rivers were seen as a natural barrier,” said Wennersten. “But shutting them down cuts people off from the natural and from each other.” Recent years have seen more interest in using the river to connect both sides of the city, such as the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail currently under construction. Also, ACM will be holding events and discussions related to the exhibit. “The psychological disconnection is hard to overcome,” said Wennersten, “but when people come together, it's a glorious thing.”

Moving Forward

Although “Reclaiming the Edge” is on view until September 15, the research is ongoing. In fact, the exhibit was the inspiration for “Urban Waterways” an interdisciplinary project that won a 2011 grant from the Smithsonian. Wennersten and Lowe are proud of the audience feedback. “People have come in a little quizzical; however, they left with a new sense of connection,” said Lowe. The exhibit's overarching theme, “It's Our River,” is a reminder about how every visitor is connected to the Anacostia. “Everyone stated that they enjoyed the experience,” said Lowe, “but they left with a new sense of responsibility.”

The Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE, Washington, DC 20020. Open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except December 25. For more information, visit anacostia.si.edu.