Restoring Shepherd Parkway

Our River: The Anacostia

On the far southwest side of Ward 8, overlooking the confluence of the Anacostia and the Potomac, and continuing for two miles south looking out over the Potomac all the way to the Naval Research Lab, is a very special place. It is nearly 200 acres of overlooks and forests with the name Shepherd Parkway.

The area was originally an important part of the ring of defensive earthen forts built around the time of the Civil War. Remnants of Fort Carroll and Fort Greble are still identified. The National Park Service took possession of the land in 1930, and it is managed today as part of National Capital Parks-East, with the parcels along the Anacostia, the rest of the ring of forts, and other park areas.

There is no “parkway” to drive on; it has no roads and not even paths or trails. City streets and alleys run through neighborhoods along the east side of it, two or three roads cut across it to join the freeway and occasional grassy areas, but mostly it is a wild and unkempt forest, a wilderness in the city.

An Unlikely Advocate  

If you really want the word on the place, ask Nathan Harrington. A local school teacher who has devoted himself to the natural restoration, preservation, and public awareness of Shepherd Parkway, in 2009 he bought a house in nearby Congress Heights and was looking for a quiet place for hiking and running. Here was this magnificent linear park with views out over the rivers and beyond. But it had no trails, was full of invasive plants, and had been collecting trash and serving as a dump for years. 

Harrington’s exercise plans got diverted. With the encouragement of Phillip Pannell, then the head of the Congress Heights Community Association, Harrington formed what became the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway. Pannell gives him the credit for getting people organized for the cleanup of the parkway. “There were so many other issues in the community – housing, public safety, and so on – that it was tough to get the cleanup to be a priority,” he says. 

Major efforts have gone into removing garlic mustard, English ivy, and other invasives, as well as cleaning up trash. The committee, which Harrington chairs, advocates for hiking trails and ranger-led educational programs to make the parkway accessible for residents and visitors. Educating the youth about litter and invasive plants has been a priority. After years of advocacy, the Park Service has finally begun installing signs that identify Shepherd Parkway by its name. Local activist Brenda Richardson says Shepherd Parkway “was in dire need of attention, and Nathan took it on as a mission.”

Meanwhile Harrington’s efforts have broadened to other areas. He is the go-to guy for trash cleanups and gets calls from schools as far away as Montgomery County that want to help students complete their service hours. Sometimes, if no project is ready in Shepherd Parkway, he sends these groups to Oxon Run or other nearby streams where he helps organize the efforts. He has also volunteered to set up the Ward 8 farmers’ market every year. Last year he received the Anacostia Watershed Society’s Anacostia Hero Award. 

A Little History

Shepherd Parkway is special for two reasons – its wild state and its namesake. Alexander Robey Shepherd (1835-1902) was known to all in DC as “Boss” Shepherd. In a few short years as head of public works and as governor of DC (1871-74), he filled the open sewer that ran down the Mall and oversaw the installation of hundreds of miles of paved streets and sidewalks, sewers, water lines, and gas mains. He brought streetlights and horse-drawn streetcars to DC. 

On the one hand, he saved the city from those who thought the grimy and diseased place should be replaced by a capital in the middle of the country. On the other, he ran the place into so much debt that Congress repealed the enabling legislation for the city government and replaced it with stronger controls. In 1876 he declared bankruptcy and moved to Mexico where he invested in silver mines. He has remained such a controversial figure that his statue appears and disappears at different times from in front of the city’s seat of government, the Wilson Building. If you want to learn more, check out the just-published “Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital” by John P. Richardson, with a preface by ex-mayor Tony Williams. Aside from the moving statue and a neighborhood on upper 13th St. NW and its associated elementary school, it is Shepherd Parkway that reminds us of the man and all he did. 

The Future

Because it seems so central to all these local outdoor spaces, Harrington and I talked trash for a while. He sees it as a three-part problem with readily applicable solutions. First is production and the controls that can be put on packaging to reduce the amount of trash that people have to deal with. Second is disposal, having reliable and easy-to-access places where trash can be contained and collected for disposal. Third is education so that people, especially young people, learn what can be done to reduce and contain trash as well as the damage it does to public places. 

Much remains to be done. Those trails and educational programs Harrington envisions are not yet in place. Playgrounds and picnic areas could be expanded, the ruins of the old forts given historic context, and events like concerts held more frequently. Pannell agrees: “We need to get more people in the community involved; most are still not even aware of the name of the place. The National Park Service should help put more of a family and community focus on what is there.” 

Harrington would like to see in Shepherd Parkway the kind of response that has occurred along Watts Branch in Ward 7, where the cleanup of the stream and the construction of the Marvin Gaye Trail have taken a place. Over 100 abandoned cars had to be removed, and the place was converted to a clean and low-litter park that folks use and enjoy in great numbers.

Unlike the areas along Marvin Gaye Trail, Shepherd Parkway has historic forts and two known bald eagle nests to build on for public support and engagement. Harrington sees so much that could be done without endangering the natural feel and almost wilderness experience of the place. It requires community efforts and support from the city and the Park Service to make it happen.

Richardson sees the day when Shepherd Parkway can be “a diamond in Congress Heights.” That would make “Boss” Shepherd proud. But he would want it done ASAP!

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.


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