This article originally appeared in The Washington Post 17 January, 2016
This year, we will witness the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Imagine how much poorer a country we would be without our national parks and monuments.
Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks are truly magnificent places, but this special birthday is not just about celebrating their grandeur. Like all anniversaries, the centennial is about closing out the past and creating the future. National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis articulated it well when he wrote, “Our first century was about bringing people to the parks, but the next century will be about bringing parks to the people.”
No city in the United States has more of a stake in the National Park Service’s future than the District. The agency, sometimes through contractors, manages more than 6,700 acres of land in the District, including the White House grounds, the Mall and its monuments, Rock Creek Park, three golf courses and two marinas.
But within the District, there is no park that needs a new future as much as the 1,200 acres that lie mainly along the east side of the Anacostia River.
That’s right: 1,200 acres of riverside national parkland lies in the very heart of our city. It’s bigger than New York’s magnificent Central Park. It’s bigger than San Francisco’s awesome Golden Gate Park. It’s nearly four times the size of Chicago’s famous lakeside Grant Park. And you probably didn’t even know it was there.
The Corps built a fine field house and several baseball diamonds and tennis courts. In 1925, it got out of the park management business, but not before making sure that one of its officers, Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III, was named director of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital. Grant built more recreational facilities, including a pool and a golf course.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave responsibility for the District’s parks to the National Park Service in 1933. Anacostia Park has spent most of the past eight decades being maintained — but not much more. Its scant facilities are old and shopworn. A walking and bike path, largely funded with federal transportation grants, is being built piece by piece, but there is little to stop for along the way. There is only the tiniest of visitors center at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and the park headquarters is in a World War II-era temporary medical office. The last major investment before the bike trail was a Brutalist outdoor roller-skating rink built more than 40 years ago. Hundreds of park acres are simply empty, and some areas are toxic waste sites.
The historic disregard of Anacostia Park is surely tied up in the District’s social history and in national budget politics. But in 2016 it should be deeply embarrassing to the National Park Service, the White House and Congress to still have this neglected park just across the Anacostia from Capitol Hill. All over the world, cities are creatively revitalizing their neglected waterfronts, deriving great economic, social, recreational and natural value from them. The District has developed the area around the Navy Yard and Nationals Park, and Washington Channel and Buzzard Point are not far behind. But all of these are on the west side of the river. On the east side, time stands still, because the federal government owns the land and has other priorities.
More than a year ago in this space, Dennis Chestnut and Brenda Richardsonasked D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to work with the National Park Service to make Anacostia Park a great asset for the city. They wrote about a “riverside eco-park” with education and job training and cultural opportunities for all residents, but particularly those east of the river. And still we wait.
So let us celebrate 100 years of protecting our great national treasures and resolve to create an even better future for the national park system. Let’s bring our parks to our people, as Jarvis suggests. There is no better way to do that than to make Anacostia Park a truly magnificent urban park for the people of the District, the nation and the world.