Last year, Ward 7 Councilman Vincent Gray embarked on an ill-fated attempt to rebrand the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Floating the alternative moniker “East End,” Gray explained: “When you say, ‘East of the River,’ unfortunately people think of the other side of the tracks, which connotes something negative like crime and poverty.”
The former mayor recognized that “East of the River” had powerful political, economic and cultural connotations within the city.
For most of the city’s history, however, the term “east of the river” was simply a geographical description without particular significance in local parlance. When District residents discussed the areas east of the Anacostia River, they used the terms “Far Southeast” for neighborhoods south of Pennsylvania Avenue and “Far Northeast” for those north.
At mid-century, much of the area remained almost rural, with long stretches of undeveloped land and hog farms dotting the landscape along the Maryland border. The middle- and working-class neighborhoods of Far Southeast and Far Northeast were more than 80 percent White, with African Americans confined by custom and restrictive covenants to the old Hillsdale neighborhood and Deanwood in Far Northeast.
Within less than two decades, however, the predominantly White world of Far Northeast and Far Southeast would disappear.
Urban renewal in Southwest initiated much of the neighborhood change. Displaced by the new development, roughly half of Southwest’s 23,000 former residents relocated east of the river, joined by low-income Black residents fleeing “private revitalization” in Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom. East of the river neighborhoods, the Post claimed, were becoming a “dumping ground for victims of urban renewal and high rents.”
The city responded to mid-century displacement by rapidly building public housing units throughout the area. By the end of the 1960s, most of the city’s public housing residents lived there.
The influx of low-income Black residents, combined with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Bolling v. Sharpe ending public school segregation, led to a brief period of interracial schooling in the neighborhoods of Far Southeast. Unable to afford to move or send their kids to private schools, White families continued to send their children to local schools long after they were desegregated.
Racial change came swiftly in the mid-1960s, however. Local employment dried up when the nearby naval gun factory closed and Bolling Air Force Base slashed its workforce, and many White workers with ties to the military installations left the city for the still-segregated suburbs just across Southern Avenue. By 1970, the area east of the river was 85 percent Black.
If the startling demographic changes to Anacostia had begun to create an image of a Black poor area “east of the river,” a 1971 lawsuit, Burner v. Washington, provided the statistics to prove it. Filed by a diverse group of residents, the suit outlined a marked inequality between the predominantly low-income Black population east of the river and the predominantly upper-income, 98 percent White population living west of Rock Creek Park. Arguing that this divide had been willfully created by the city and federal governments through public policy and substandard services, the residents requested that the U.S. District Court order public officials to draw up a comprehensive plan to improve the “inferior” status of the area.
Though unsuccessful in the courts, the lawsuit helped create a language for describing the area as a single socioeconomic entity — “East of the River” — that was the mirror opposite of the affluent neighborhoods “West of the Park.”
That language was both a description and a rallying cry. Determined to reverse the trends that an earlier generation of policymakers had put in motion, anti-poverty officials and city leaders directed increased money and services to neighborhoods east of the river. Anxious to attract homebuyers, African American housing specialists recommended building blocks of townhomes. Black businessmen encouraged local pride by starting an “I Love Anacostia Day” in 1978. The next year, area boosters scored a symbolic victory when newly elected Mayor Marion Barry moved to Hillcrest. Though not insignificant, these initiatives did little to reduce the area’s city-leading rates of poverty, renter occupancy and poor health.
As trailblazing African-American journalist Dorothy Gilliam observed, in the early 1980s the area east of the river remained a “cacophony of contrasts,” with “acres of public housing and cheap apartments” as well as “$100,000 houses on cul-de-sacs.” Yet in most parts of the city, the notion that the entire cityscape east of the river was a ghetto had hardened into incontrovertible common sense. Reporters and residents alike referred to the entire area as “forgotten,” “neglected,” and “the other side of the tracks.”
Conversely, for the quarter of the District’s population who lived there, “East of the River” became a defiant claim of Black working-class identity, as well as an accusation that west of the river residents, including city leaders, had mistreated those to the east. Asked if he believed the area had been forgotten, one east of the river resident emphasized, “We are neglected, not forgotten.”
In the next decade, as crack and crime consumed public housing projects and formerly middle-class apartment complexes alike, banks closed their branches, grocery stores pulled out, and landlords neglected upkeep, reinforcing the association of the term “east of the river” with poverty and crime. That negative connotation has endured in the twenty-first century.
Since 2000, the city has targeted the area for investment. Yet the money that has flowed east of the Anacostia has been a pittance when compared to that devoted to the center city.
Keenly aware that more affluent city residents, investors, and large corporations are not willing to put forward the money to alter the socioeconomic landscape created by policymakers a half century ago, even concerned city leaders, such as Councilman Vincent Gray, have taken to gimmickry. His stillborn effort to rename the area, however, is less a reflection of his (lack of) political skill than an indictment of us all.
Chris Myers Asch is editor of Washington History and teaches history at Colby College. George Derek Musgrove is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. They are coauthors of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital” (UNC Press 2017).