The Invisible Wall: Washington East of the Anacostia River
Washington, DC is one of the most income-stratified cities in the United States. Its populace includes the country’s wealthiest, highest-educated people along with the poorest and least-educated citizens. In the space between these disparities exists an invisible wall comprised of race and class, a seemingly impenetrable frontier, obfuscated by government policy and physical terrain. Yet it is possible to witness this divide in the areas East of the Anacostia River. That the District of Columbia’s East of the River communities are located within the boundaries of the federal city owes more to founding father Thomas Jefferson’s need for symmetry and square than logic. The rigidity of man over environment forced the incorporation of these communities - though separated from the mainland by a virtual moat.
The Anacostia River, named after the tribe of Native Americans that once populated its then pristine shores, does not flow. Instead, it rises and falls with the tides of the Chesapeake Bay. Likewise Anacostia, one neighborhood of 11 whose name has become representative for all, has owed its prosperity and decline to federal government policies, which have impacted the lives of the citizens of these communities.
Historically this segregated area evolved from Native American fishing ground, tobacco plantations built by slavery, to village and farmlands following the Civil War, where large tracts of its land were bought by the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau for freed slaves. Following World War II, when the Federal Government increased in size, the government built modest homes for returning white veterans and the increasing labor force of civil servants. It was during this time that the federal government sought to make Washington an example one of the world’s great capital cities and would initiate the urban planning policies that would have disastrous effects on the East of the River communities and DC’s African American populace.
As the government sought to clean up the slums around the U.S. Capitol and Mall, all public housing was eliminated in the area and moved wholesale across the Anacostia River. Demographics changed almost overnight, and the social landscape was overwhelmed by insufficient social and municipal supports.