| By Sam Pearson |
When Bruce McNeil uses the image-editing program Adobe Photoshop, the Anacostia River becomes a dazzling array of deep blues and greens, a range of color most urban rivers lost centuries ago.
Throughout history, art has revived the fortunes of neighborhoods that have declined. In Anacostia, a community of local artists is growing. Some, like McNeil, see the river as key to the area’s rebirth. The river’s proximity to the U.S. Capitol building and the federal government’s role managing it has made it a microcosm of larger struggles for environmental groups, and its location in Southeast puts the parks far from typical tourist destinations.
When he canoes on the river, McNeil said, “You wouldn’t even know that you’re in Washington, D.C., because of the abundance of wildlife and foliage and fish. … You don’t hear traffic, and you don’t see buildings.”
McNeil says the river and the fortunes of the Anacostia community, where he lives, go hand in hand. He’s one of a number of artists whose work blends environmentalism with community development.
McNeil came to Anacostia in 1998 when his mother was ill. She died in 2010, but he decided to stay in the neighborhood.
Several times a week, he drives the two blocks from his Burns Avenue Southeast home to Fort Dupont Park. He says he used to walk, but the 376-acre park is so massive he needs a vehicle to reach all of his favorite sites.
The park feels like a country forest on a quiet May afternoon; its empty picnic sites could almost pass for campgrounds beneath the stars.
Southeast, McNeil says, has more green spaces than the rest of the District put together.
It’s just that people from other areas don’t always use them. As the National Park Service’s website notes, perhaps to aid tourists, Fort Dupont Park “is not near Dupont Circle.”
Fort Dupont Park, in particular, is so large that wildlife normally associated with isolated forests have made a home in it. Some rangers even report stories of small dogs being snatched away by hawks and eagles when unsuspecting owners let them wander too far without leashes.
At a public comment event the Park Service hosted in March, Rondell Pooler said his biggest concern was doing something about the wildlife – which often unnerved residents who didn’t know a large deer wandering through an apartment complex was unlikely to attack.
“That shows you that the forest is alive and well,” McNeil said, “and it’s healthy.”
Jurisdictionally, Anacostia’s parklands are somewhat unique. They serve an urban area, but are controlled by the National Park Service, a unit of the federal government – with all of the bureaucracy that entails. Large events need permits; selling food not prepared by government vendors, in particular, has proven difficult to get cleared.
Compared to Washington’s dozens of storied monuments, “a lot of Washington doesn’t know we’re here,” said Michelle Oehmichen-Clark, supervisory park ranger for Anacostia Park and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
The Park Service is doing more to provide meaningful services for the community, Oehmichen-Clark said. The annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival, the gardens’ biggest event of the year, has long partnered with embassies to provide cultural celebrations. But the Park Service had mainly connected with Asian embassies. Reaching out to African countries like Gambia, South Africa and Egypt drew more visitors from the neighborhoods near the park, Oemichen-Clark said.
“It made it more relevant to a lot of people,” she said. “We got an audience that we may not have gotten before.”
Many park rangers are not from D.C., let alone the neighborhoods that surround the parks.
Patricia Cummins, a third-grade teacher in Homestead, Fla., was one of two artists-in-residence at Anacostia Park in 2012. While prestigious artist-in-residence programs at nationally renowned parks like Biscayne Bay National Park near where she lives are competitive for artists, Cummins and her friend from college, Pearl Lau, were selected because Cummins knew Oehmichen-Clark when she worked at a park near them in Florida.
Large national parks often provide perks like special secluded cabins where artists can collect their thoughts for three or four months. In Washington, the two women stayed at Oehmichen-Clark’s house for about two weeks, Cummins said.
With Cummins painting and Lao working with pastels, they created river scenes outdoors in the muggy summer heat. Cummins said to keep cool, the pair would sometimes leave the park to walk to a McDonald’s across D.C. 295 on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue Northeast in the nearby Deanwood neighborhood for mango pineapple smoothies.
When they returned, “the park people there, they kind of looked at us a little weird,” Cummins said.
She said she found their concerns overblown.
“We didn’t get mugged or anything,” Cummins said, and the people they talked to along the way were friendly.
The parks in Anacostia offer perks, like being able to photograph cherry blossoms away from crowds, McNeil said. And its picnic spaces offer prime spots for summer cookouts.
Some of those stories are told at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, in an exhibit on river restoration called “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways & Civic Engagement,” slated to be on display through Sept. 15, which features several photographs by McNeil.
Still, the park’s acting superintendent, Gopaul Noojibail, said he knew the Park Service had more to do to combat the area’s nagging problems.
“I think this side of the river has been neglected,” he said, “for whatever reason, since the founding of the city.”