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The Anacostia: From Years of Neglect to a River of Promise

Dorothy Rowley | 10/24/2012, 4:55 p.m.

"[District] residents should look at the Anacostia as New Yorkers look at Central Park." Bruce McNeil

Museum Exhibit Conveys River's Past, Present and Hopes for the Future

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum not only sheds light on the illustrious history of the Anacostia River but enlightens Southeast residents on the importance of preserving the treasure trove located in their own backyard.

"Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement," which runs through September 2013, also marks the museum's 45th anniversary. The exhibit depicts the museum's evolution to programs that reflect everyday life, history and the future of the African-American community that surrounds the river.

"Our latest exhibit is good not just for residents east of the river, but for the entire city and region," said Gail Lowe, museum historian, who added that since the exhibit opened on Oct. 14, there has been huge support from the community.

Meanwhile, the Anacostia River, which stretches nearly nine miles, serves as a major tributary for the region that includes Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To that end, it has a long and storied past, which dates from 1742, as outlined in the exhibit.

The exhibit provides a chronology of the river, and notes that in the late 1800s the Anacostia was viewed by the District government as a conduit for sewage. Another point emphasizes efforts to rid the river of toxic substances, which ultimately resulted in the Clean Up & Protection Act of 2009, and which later became known as the D.C. Bag Tax Law that took effect the following year.

The new exhibit also details how the Potomac River - located in the western part of the District and often promoted as a major tourist attraction - connects with the Anacostia River and flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Overall, the interactive exhibit seeks to examine the Anacostia as an historic waterway and how it contributes to economic, racial and social segregation.

"It's no secret that more emphasis has been placed on the Potomac River, but it's been for historic reasons," said Lowe. "[At the onset] the plan was that the city would grow to the east and the Anacostia would serve both the commercial and recreational corridors. However, when emphasis swung from the west, the Potomac took greater importance [making it more of a tourist attraction]."

Lowe added that at one point, Congress decided to clean up the Potomac first and then the Anacostia River, but switched gears when people realized the Anacostia which was just as important to the city, had been neglected for too long.

Sharon Reickens, museum deputy director, echoed Lowe's sentiments and wants citizens to be more responsible for waterways in their neighborhoods.

"Whatever flows into the Anacostia River impacts their health," Reickens said. "There are examples to be found in other cities of how citizens can come together to clean up waters and make significant changes in their communities."

Bruce McNeil is an artist who has several photographs in the exhibit. One, which depicts native Americans as the first people to live along its shores, superimposes their faces among the trees.