A Walk "Down by the Riverside"

Our River: The Anacostia
Photograph By
Bill Matuszeski

Chef Tyrome Henson and his Salsa

‘Twas a beautiful day early in May, when folks gathered on a Saturday morning at the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center at 62nd and Banks NE near the Capitol Heights Metro.  After some enthusiastic stretching, the group started out on a “Community Health Walk” down Watts Branch to the Anacostia River, three miles away.  Washington Parks for People, the Institute for Public Health Innovation and other partners had joined with neighbors and community leaders to celebrate 14 years of community health and the transformation of the stream, as well as the renewed park and trail now named after Gaye that follow it to the Anacostia.

The theme was how parks can help make lives healthier and more enjoyable, as well as provide jobs.  Leading the way was Steve Coleman, Executive Director of Washington Parks for People, who said that Marvin Gaye Park had become no less than “an international model of what is possible when our community comes together to revitalize our green spaces as engines for jobs, health and recreation.”  The restored stream, park and trail have also become regional draws; later in the month another group, this time from the Capitol Hill Village, hiked the trail and went on to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  And the Hill Rag included it as one of the six best winter walks in the entire Anacostia watershed a few months ago.

Part of the draw is the history that has occurred along the stream.  Marvin Gaye himself grew up in the East Capitol Dwellings housing near the Recreation Center, and it is said he would escape his cruel father by coming down by the stream and creating the tunes that eventually made him the first Motown composer and singer to use environmental themes.

As we walked along, we were asked to place orange and red flags, orange for those things we saw as good and red for the bad things we encountered.  We explained to others each flag we put in place.  

A number of ideas about health and the park were presented along the way, starting with “nature is the best medicine.”  This is about the health benefits of exercise and sports, and about how the creation of the new park and trail were part of a community healing process and environmental justice.  We stopped at a small amphitheater built near the new Woodson High School to see how something as simple as a stage can teach us how to grow in self-reliance and break the cycles of addiction that often start young.

Next stop was the Riverside Healthy Living Center, a community fresh food market that was originally the nightclub where Marvin Gaye first performed.  This is a place for classes, cooking and selling food grown in all the surrounding community and youth gardens.  It is also the offices and training center for the DC Green Corps, which has graduated nearly 200 young people for green jobs.  The entire urban agriculture complex includes this Center, the Marvin Gaye Community Greening Center and Urban Farm across Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, and the Lederer Youth Garden, the largest in DC.  The Urban Farm produced six thousand pounds of food in 2014, and is going year-round in 2015, with a goal of twelve thousand pounds.  The themes are green jobs, fresh food and fresh ideas.  Refreshments were provided, including a fresh vegetable salsa prepared on-site by Chef Tyrome Henson of the UDC Cooperative Extension Service.

Further downstream is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nature Sanctuary, near the site of a speech King gave during the civil rights March on Washington.  It is also where the stream returns to daylight after a two-block long passage under Burroughs Avenue.   Two other historic sites in this area are the National Training School for Women and Girls founded by Nannie Helen Burroughs, and the remnants of the Suburban Gardens Amusement Park, which served blacks when Glen Echo was segregated.  Both are featured on well-placed historic signboards along the trail.

All along our trek we encountered locals out for a walk or enjoying the day sitting in the park or with their children or grandchildren in the playgrounds.  No signs of “needle parks” here.  Like anywhere else where there are people, there is a sense of security.  At one point we met a gentleman friend of an sponsor who came out of his yard along the trail to tell us of moving there as a seven-year-old in 1941 and of the changes he has seen.  Still any problems?  He points to a storm sewer outlet along the trail with definite signs of sewage leaks, a supposition confirmed downstream where the sheen shows on the main stem of Watts Branch after the gully joins it.  DCWater still has some work to do.

On the final leg of the journey we pass under the Metro and train tracks and the Freeway at Minnesota Avenue and enter Kenilworth Park for a hike to the Anacostia.  Here the stream is deep in tangled forest and the landscape is unkempt.  There is no trail, but you can hike along the road in the Park, which is actually an old municipal solid waste dump covered over with playing fields and still subject to a clean-up efforts in coming years.  The new Anacostia Riverfront Trail is being constructed well inland of the River; after passing through the Park, it cuts back to the River near the Aquatic Garden and proceeds north to the Bladensburg Marina.  When open in less than a year, it will close the final gap in the trail from the marina south to Benning Road.

At the end of the hike we are asked to “imagine our future” by writing on large note boards the things we would like most to see.  For me, it is a stream that is safe for kids to play in, a goal that will require substantial efforts by DCWater and the DC Department of the Environment to assure that the storm sewers are clear of sewage and only carrying clean runoff from the land.  It will be a few years before we can expect to see that.

But the lessons have been well stated and examples have been many and interesting.  Strong parks do help make strong communities and better health for all.  As the Australians say, “Feel Blue? Touch Green!”

Talking Trees along the Health Walk
Along the Marvin Gaye Trail
Watts Branch

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, current Chair 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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