“The deprived community of Anacostia came to be, not by choice but by chance and through a woeful lack of vision.”
By the turn of the century, the city began to expand into the Anacostia area. Even the federal government moved in, developing an airfield on a tract of land that spanned several miles along the shoreline. This installation would eventually be named Bolling Air Force Base, Anacostia Naval Air Station and the Naval Research Lab.
In the early 1900s, Anacostia’s economic wellbeing was hitched to a hub of barber shops, small drug, grocery and hardware stores, and family-owned furniture shops.
WW II brought in dramatic change to Anacostia. The population doubled as new neighborhoods in the far southeast region were developed. The wartime growth in the military bases spurred demand for housing, with thousands of two-level apartment buildings established.
In the years leading up to the 1960s, Anacostia was a thriving, vibrant community with quaint and dignified suburbs in the outskirts of Washington DC, with predominantly white people, good schools, plenty of parkland and clean air. With the gradual development of the outlying areas of Washington DC in the 1950s and the 1960s, longtime white residents moved out of Anacostia, and waves of blacks began to move in. Many of the small shops put up shutters or followed their longtime customers to the suburbs.
The influx of new residents occurred along with the shutting down of the wartime industry such as the military armament factory in Congress Heights. These combined effects triggered the economic and population decline of the southeast.
As I read on, I realized that the deprived community of Anacostia came to be, not by choice but by chance and through a woeful lack of vision. As the once wealthy neighborhood began to collapse, day by day, the affluence was getting replaced by stark disrepair. The city leaders of the 1960s lacked the vision and foresight to realize the negative consequences of what they did in order to make space for revitalization of the southwest neighborhood across the river. Supported by the federal government, they literally dumped the poor and under-privileged across the river to the newly-built but congested tenements that were sprouting like mushrooms around every corner.
Before long, the city fathers realized the gravity of their error, but it was too late in the day to retrace their steps. The shift in populace and the new bussing regulations that swept the nation, led to white people leaving Anacostia in droves. Following close on their heels were the middle class blacks who couldn’t stand how bad the streets had gotten and how unsafe the schools had become. The neighborhood was almost unrecognizable after some time. The safe and trusty Mom and Pop stores and the family barbershops gave way to vandalized houses, vacant lots and liquor stores.
Over thirty years, the upscale neighborhood fell from its middle-class perch to a poverty-ridden, crime-infested community where the common sights were check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, drugs, crime, homeless people, storefront churches and abandoned buildings. When Interstate 295 came into being in the 1960s, there was fervent hope that might bring a change for the better. Hopes were miserably dashed when all the beltway did was to give Anacostia a sense of being little more than a shortcut from the suburbs to downtown.
By the beginning of the 21st century, nearly one in six housing units were vacant and more than one in three residents were living in poverty.
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Schools that were clean and well-maintained where the children of affluent white Americans in days gone by were given the foundation for their lives. As I drove past, I could not help the let-down feeling that engulfed me as I observed the leaky roofs, the sense of dilapidation and neglect that seemed all-pervading. The neglect outside was just a whiff of the unkempt condition that could probably be found inside, I said to myself.