Heritage Trail Coming to Anacostia

Joe Puglisi inside his shoe repair store in Anacostia during the 1960s. Courtesy of Nancy Ciatti.

If all goes according to plan, within the next year Cultural Tourism DC will unveil its second DC Neighborhood Heritage Trail east of the river, joining the Deanwood Heritage Trail in Ward 7. Twenty distinctive markers will delineate landmarks in and around Historic Anacostia and its nearby neighborhoods. 

Earlier this spring proofs of the illustrated and narrative signs were shown to community members whose donated photographs and shared family stories are captured alongside maps, photographs, paintings, news clippings and ephemera that document the area’s history over the past two centuries. A diverse group of current and former residents unanimously offered their praise in looking over the poster-sized prints.

The signs, which mostly will be 7.5 feet tall by 2.5 feet wide or 6.75 feet tall by 1.5 feet wide, will be installed on the neighborhood’s interior streets and denote sites throughout the commercial corridors of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road. Anacostia Heritage Trail markers will point out St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church at 12th & V Streets and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at 14th & W Streets, as well as reveal hidden locales such as John Wilkes Booth’s escape route through the neighborhood and the former 11th Precinct Police Station.

Funds for Cultural Tourism DC to create the markers originate from the Federal Highways Administration and the District Department of Transportation. DDOT manages the installation, which is expected to begin later this year. For the previous Heritage Trails, installation funding also covered the cost of printing 10,000 accompanying booklets to be distributed free in libraries, schools, and community centers along the route. Unfortunately for the Anacostia Heritage Trail, nearly $29,000 will have to be privately raised to do so. 

At the most recent public meeting, Arrington Dixon, former City Council Chairman and President of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, pledged to match up to $2,000. For more information on the capital campaign, contact ACC01@aol.com. 

Researching the Anacostia Heritage Trail

From the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Alexandria Branch line passing through the neighborhood in the 1800s to the streetcars of the Anacostia & Potomac River Railroad Company in the 1900s to the Metro’s Green Line of today, the Anacostia Heritage Trail tells a concise and long overlooked story of the development of the city’s first suburb. 

To gather both historic insights and personal perspective for the narrative contained on each sign, local historian Mara Cherkasky visited public and private archives throughout the city including those at the Anacostia Community Museum and people’s living rooms.

“The community seems to be really excited about the trail,” Cherkasky said. “People especially love to see pictures of what their neighborhood used to look like, or see themselves, family, or friends on a sign, or see familiar places that might be gone or totally different now.”

The personal stories recounted to Cherkasky and featured on the Anacostia Heritage Trail signs reveal two close-knit communities entirely separate from each other, one white and one black that co-existed until the early 1960s. Both of these communities, white Anacostia and the adjacent black communities in Hillsdale and Barry Farm, took pride in their identity as an underdog; a feeling that remains. 

Vividly bringing the past to life are Reverend Oliver “OJ” Johnson, a fixture in the community for more than a half-century, who, as a student at Birney Elementary School, watched the unveiling of the Big Chair with his entire class in 1959, members of the Bobolinks, who before their induction into the Vocal Hall of Fame, harmonized outside of a popular neighborhood deli, and Nancy Ciatti, whose father Joseph Puglisi ran a successful shoe repair store before and after the 1968 riots.

One of the markers, planned for installation outside of the Anacostia Metro station on Howard Road SE, will read, “World War I transformed Anacostia. Just north of the [Firth Sterling Steel] plant, the Navy Department built the riverside Anacostia Naval Air Station. The Army Signal Corps Air Service installed what became Bolling Field and took over the old Washington Steel property in 1935. When the Navy took over Bolling five years later, Anacostia became a true Navy town.” 

“’Poplar Point was all Navy barracks,’ remembered Johnson who lived nearby as a child in the 1950s. On their way to school, he and his pals collected sailor caps presumably dropped by inebriated sailors returning from nearby taverns to their barracks. Today, Johnson, who is retired, is a frequent presence at all manner of community meetings and well-respected for his activism.  

As Anacostia and its surrounding environs slowly revitalize and redevelop, Cultural Tourism DC’s “An East-of-the-River View: Anacostia Heritage Trail” preserves an ever important window to the past for current and future generations. 

Once installed there will be a community celebration to dedicate the Anacostia Heritage Trail. For more information on DC Neighborhood Heritage Trails visit www.culturaltourismdc.org.