Best River

Anacostia River
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomack, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Connogochegue be, and the same is hereby accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.” Thus, with the Residence Act of 1790, was the federal capital established. The Potomac, which it straddled, was its lifeblood; Conococheague Creek, out past Hagerstown, Md., and the Eastern Branch, now the Anacostia River, were vague distant boundaries.

That was then. In the intervening 223 years, the situation has flipped. The Potomac is now just the District’s southwest boundary, shared with Virginia; the Anacostia is its central artery, our river. It’s not quite the waterway that some longtime residents remember—teeming with wildlife, where they learned to swim—but it’s slowly coming back. Nowhere in the District can you lose yourself in nature like in the marshes of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Nowhere can you experience a rejuvenated neighborhood like in Yards Park. Nowhere can you bike or jog past fishermen through serene greenery like on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

There’s always talk of building new bridges across the Potomac, but these are merely for traffic alleviation. Proposals for an 11th Street Bridge park, on the other hand, would make the river itself a destination and help erase the psychological barrier that the river has long represented— the dividing line between D.C.’s haves and have-nots. The river’s ascendance will have its downsides; affordable neighborhoods like Anacostia might not be affordable much longer. But if Mayor Vince Gray’s ambitious goal of making 100 percent of D.C. waterways swimmable and fishable within 20 years, laid out in his Sustainable D.C. plan, is accomplished, perceptions of the Anacostia as anything other than the city’s great natural treasure will be a distant memory.