By Doug Siglin
I spent most of Saturday afternoon sitting at a picnic table, eating good food, chatting with friends and strangers, and watching the Anacostia River flow by. It was an almost perfect way to spend a hot August Saturday.
I was at the Seafarers’ Yacht Club, at an event called “Celebrating the History of Seafarers Yacht Club” organized by the Double Nickels Theater and the 11th Street Bridge Park.
Commodore Tony Ford, uniformed in dress whites, came by our table at some point to tell us that the program was starting in the clubhouse. I probably should have gone inside to watch. But I already know a lot about the club’s history, and I was having too much fun outside picking apart my fried fish and chicken wings, drinking sweet tea, and listening to interesting life stories. It felt like a summer church picnic.
The Seafarers Yacht Club is a bona fide institution in the District, albeit a well-hidden one. The club was founded in 1945 as one of the first African American boat clubs in the nation. Since most of the Anacostia’s shoreline was owned by the federal government, founder Lewis T. Green asked for the help of famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune, a close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to persuade the Department of Interior to provide a location. Not long thereafter, the club was given a marshy spot at the end of a long, isolated road next to the railroad tracks.
That’s exactly the same spot where I spent Saturday afternoon. It’s pleasant now, after more than seven decades of work, much of it personally done by Charles “Bob” Martin, Mr. Green’s former pupil and the driving force behind the club since 1965. Former Commodore Martin is still there, also dressed in crisp whites, a young 86, a real pleasure to meet.
The club’s isolation has served it well. The District’s tidal wave of change has thus far missed the bucolic spot at the end of the road. Club members tend their boats, host events, and take pride in a long tradition of cleaning up the Anacostia River. I can see how they might fervently wish for things to stay exactly as they are.
But Commodore Ford, Mr. Martin and the rest know that changes are coming. The Anacostia River continues to silt up, threatening the very reason that the boat club exists. At low tide, the river is so shallow that the boats can’t come in or out. Getting together the tens of millions of dollars that it would cost to dredge the area around their docks is out of the question for the club. Relocation is an unwelcome but real survival strategy.
Meanwhile, the tidal wave of nearby development approaches Seafarers. The club holds a short-term lease from the District, which owns the mile-long “Boathouse Row”, having received it from the National Park Service in a Congressionally-directed land swap more than a decade ago. The land between the tracks and the river is narrow and unzoned and the infrastructure needs improvement. Those facts probably hold back any immediate development threat. But it won’t be long before the Southeast Boulevard project moves ahead and Capitol Hill’s southeast corner gets reconnected to the waterfront. The Anacostia is getting cleaner every year, and the pressure for public recreational access to the water and tax revenue from the waterfront land is growing.
Three other old-time yacht clubs along Boathouse Row, also on short-term leases, share the Seafarers’ sense of disquiet. (One of the three, the District Yacht Club, has an existential problem: its clubhouse burned to the ground last December.) The four clubs have come together under the umbrella of the “Historic Anacostia Boating Association” to try to have a say in their future.
My sense of all this is that if they want to preserve themselves, the historic Anacostia boat clubs need to develop a serious long-term proposal to the District that protects their interests, including quality clubhouses and marinas, while providing for more public and economic uses along Boathouse Row. The two are not incompatible. It is surely in DC’s interest to have a lot of activity in and around the water on the lower Anacostia, and the historic yacht clubs can and should make a strong case to be a part of it, not because of their past, but because of their future.
I had a perfect relaxed Saturday afternoon watching the Anacostia River mosey by while I appreciated the history of Seafarers and their off-the-beaten-path venue. But the isolated corner of the District that hosts the four historic boating clubs will not stay that way forever. Here and everywhere, the future belongs to those who create it.