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The Consequences Of Cleaning Up The Anacostia River


Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia River has long been clogged with trash, sewage and industrial waste. It was often called Washington's forgotten river. Now, the Anacostia Waterfront is dotted with cranes and some of the hippest new developments in the city. But as member station WAMU's Jacob Fenston reports, there are worries not everybody will benefit from the Anacostia's comeback.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Growing up near the Anacostia River in the 1950s and '60s, there weren't many public pools where African-American kids could cool off on a hot summer afternoon, so Dennis Chestnut and his friends found their own place to swim.

DENNIS CHESTNUT: So this is our beach.

FENSTON: We're at a quiet spot on the Anacostia, the afternoon light filtering through the cattails.

CHESTNUT: This is where we would be.

FENSTON: It's an idyllic childhood memory, but if you were to turn away from the water, in those days you'd see the sprawling city dump. You'd smell not just the trash but the smoke from open-air trash fires. Ash would blanket nearby neighborhoods, even inside homes.

CHESTNUT: There was not air conditioners. We had screen doors, screen windows and fans. And that's what was circulating, you know, through your house.

FENSTON: The Anacostia wasn't just a dirty river. It was a dividing line, separating the haves and the have-nots for generations. To this day, the statistics are stark. In neighborhoods east of the river, the median household income is less than half what it is for the city as a whole. And for generations, those neighborhoods, the poorest in the city, were the closest to the city's biggest polluters; up and down the river, coal-fired power plants, a cement factory, gravel yards. But in the past few years, the river has gone from a place to avoid to an urban amenity.

JANELLE BALIKO: I am up on the eighth floor balcony.

FENSTON: Janelle Baliko is pointing up to her D.C. apartment just a few steps from the Anacostia. It was the river itself that drew her here. She's an avid kayaker.

How long does it take you to get from, like, your apartment to being in your kayak?

BALIKO: All of about five minutes (laughter).

FENSTON: The recent transformation here on the west side of the river has been remarkable. Baliko's luxury apartment building is where the old cement factory used to be. A few blocks away, an abandoned boiler factory is now a microbrewery. All this is possible in part because the river is a lot cleaner than it used to be after a couple decades of dedicated cleanup efforts and a $2.6 billion sewer upgrade that just went online. But some people who've lived by the river for years see a downside to the cleanup.

CRAIG MUNADEL: If this area's really cleaned up, the chocolate city that I see here will be gone.

FENSTON: This is Craig Munadel. He has a lawn chair set up by the water on the east side of the river. He's fishing with a good view of all the new development on the other side.

MUNADEL: It seems like someplace that I wouldn't be welcomed at. It seems like it's a culture for the upper middle class or the well-to-do where the lower income, people who've been in the city and working, they're being forced out or left out.

FENSTON: Of course, D.C. isn't alone in reclaiming its river. It's happening all over the country. As money and people are pouring in to revitalize city centers, rivers that run through them are suddenly valuable commodities. Academics have a term for this.

MELISSA CHECKER: There were some people that would call it ecological gentrification.

FENSTON: This is Melissa Checker. She's an urban studies professor at Queens College in New York. Her preferred term is environmental gentrification. She says there's an inherent paradox.

CHECKER: For historic reasons, often having to do with, you know, various forms of institutional racism, people of color have lived around industrial neighborhoods.

FENSTON: And for years, people in those neighborhoods have been fighting to get them cleaned up. Now, it's finally happening...

CHECKER: But it's coming along with this redevelopment that is going to price them out of the neighborhood.

CHESTNUT: Now, this is the litter trap.

FENSTON: Dennis Chestnut, who grew up swimming in the shadow of the dump, is one of those people who's been fighting to clean up the Anacostia. He's the founder of an environmental group focused on the river. But he sees the development more positively. More people with means living near the river means more people invested in the river's health.

CHESTNUT: The Anacostia needs to be viewed as Washington, D.C.'s river - not the forgotten river but the river.

FENSTON: And he says he hopes he'll one day be able to again swim in the river and take his grandkids and great-grandkids. This time, though, he hopes he won't have to worry about bacteria or toxins in the water or smoke from burning trash piles. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.