Running 8.5 miles from Bladensburg, Maryland, to Hain’s Point in Washington, D.C., the Anacostia River complements the Potomac as one of the defining natural elements of the nation’s capital city.

Once the setting of a thriving, wealthy Native American tribe and now a destination for outdoors folk and a muse to nature enthusiasts, the Anacostia River has endured substantial changes. Above all, it has been adversely affected since European colonization began in the 17th century.

In recent history, the Anacostia River has come under the care of environmentalist groups such as The Anacostia Watershed Society and the Anacostia River Keepers. Still, as the efforts of these groups help the river to steadily improve, the question remains: How will this affect the populations who have been affected by malpractice and negligence that have led this historic cityscape and its biome to decay?

“The Anacostia River was horribly polluted,” explains current CEO and President Chris Williams. “Fishing had been banned, swimming had been banned. Most people didn’t even interact much because it was so polluted. It had a reputation as a place you didn’t go because it was associated with neighborhoods where some folks didn’t want to be, or they felt were unsafe, and whether that was true or not, that was its reputation.”

Anacostia Riverwalk trail in DC on a clear day.

Today, the AWS is working to reverse the conditions that brought about this perception. Through a combination of policy, fieldwork and education, the AWS aims to make the Anacostia River both swimmable and fishable by 2025.

“It could be swimmable, but I don’t see it being there in three years,” contends longtime Ward 8 resident Alvin Allen, 54, “I mean I’m not a scientist or anything but in three years I don’t see a human swimming and not getting sick in this water. I mean you have many many years of decay and pollution. The park has been getting better over the past several years, but there’s still plenty of trash but this side has always been home to me.”

Williams calls and responds to a fear shared by many citizens in the wards across the river. With the addition of new infrastructure, the destruction of those long-standing, many citizens feel as though changes occurring in neighborhoods like Anacostia, Capitol Heights and Barry Farm are ushering in a new demographic, and the purification of the river is an extension of that.

“Historically speaking, the Anacostia Watershed Society has been involved with both environmental and racial justice, and they’re sort of built on each other,” he said. “If you look at the planning of water resources and pollution control in D.C., Wards 7 and 8 and areas down by the river tended to be last in line. You have a neighborhood that was historically marginalized and was more subject to the ravages of the pollution and, of course, that made the area less desirable. As the river comes back it does bring greater economic activity back to the river. Particularly on the west side of the river, you’re seeing a lot of economic development with the Nationals Park, restaurants, office buildings and luxury condominiums all being built on the river now. That sort of benefit is happening slower on the east side than it should.

“Of course the danger there is as that happens, the very people who were negatively impacted by the river being such a mess will be the ones who will have to move out as the economy improves,” he said. “That’s an equally important fight as far as AWS is concerned, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

According to Denise Rolark Barnes, D.C. native and publisher of The Washington Informer, there is a widespread belief among local residents that measures for neighborhood beautification are oft seen as suited for newcomers, but should be viewed alternatively.

“The thing that frustrates me is that when people look at the efforts that are made to change neighborhoods, we don’t assume that they’re for us,” Barnes said. “You create a bike lane, you plant trees, you clean up the Anacostia River and the mindset is that, ‘Oh, this is for them,’ but you live here. This bike line doesn’t say for whites only, it’s just as much ours as it is theirs.

“We’ve asked, we’ve fought, we’ve petitioned and done things as well to have these amenities in our neighborhoods without even recognizing that we paid for it,” she said. “Everybody’s a taxpayer even if you’re just buying a carton of milk. All that contributes to the budget of the city which is used to pay for these amenities, but they didn’t come here until they got here so it’s hard not to have the mindset that things that are clean and pretty, new and vibrant, we don’t think they’re supposed to be there for us, so how do we get past that mindset?”

Jessi Greiser, associate professor of linguistics at The University of Tennessee, explores how the language used by both residents and outsiders alike contribute to the realities created within a territory. In researching her book, “The Black Side of the River,” she said the Anacostia residents she interviewed were clear about their love of their neighborhood.

She said when she asked questions, “people respond like, ‘No, the thing I need to tell you about my neighborhood is that it’s gorgeous.’ … [W]hat I realized was much more at stake was this idea of neighborhood identity and what it meant to be an Anacostian, what it meant to be from east of the river, and the ways those were tied in with Black Washingtonian identity.”

Above all, the identity of a neighborhood is defined by the livelihood of its inhabitants, but secondary to that, its culture is also largely dictated by its geology and other natural characteristics. For these reasons, a feature such as a river may have more of an underlying effect than is initially realized. And it’s clear that the people who have been living in Anacostia deserve to enjoy a clean river as much as anyone else.

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