In 2003, the Washington City Paper published an article about illegal dumping in Watts Branch, the sliver of the Anacostia River that runs through Drive-Over Country in far northeast Washington (“The River Wild,” 11/14/2003). An ex-offender recruited for beautification efforts in the park was not optimistic about the face-lift. “Hell no, ain’t no way we’ll clean this place,” he said. “You couldn’t see the grass for the trash.”
The competition between grass and trash so memorably articulated by this layperson is the defining feature of Drive-Over Country—well, that and the highway. This is a part of the District that is very black, very poor, and doesn’t look much like the promised land former Mayor Anthony A. Williams talked about when leaving office. The nabes’ greatest asset—their unreconstructed country character—has been compromised by the aforementioned highway, a power plant, railroad tracks, and battered Great Society housing projects. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Marvin Gaye Park (as the area surrounding Watts Branch was rechristened, in honor of Northeast’s native son) are lovely, but their loveliness gets lost in the gritty vibe. Navigating the communities connected by Kenilworth Avenue brings on a montage of disjointed images: liquor stores and seafood carryouts; the bleak doorways of Kenilworth-Parkside housing project, once promised to be sold to its residents in a failed Reagan-era initiative; dense woods; children running unsupervised through the streets; floor-to-ceiling glass windows in empty classrooms at Cesar Chavez Public Charter school; electrical transformers towering over ranch homes on spacious lots; a woman struggling with an umbrella, running into a new building in densely-developed Mayfair. Every yard tells a different story—this nabe’s lush lawns could have been imported from Cleveland Park or Georgetown, but its brown patches growing under broken-down cars could have come from Birmingham or Baton Rouge. Such is Drive-Over Country’s urban-planning apocalypse—it’s a place reminiscent of many places, but not quite anywhere.
If anything ties Drive-Over Country together, it’s I-295, the commuter route that runs right smack down the middle of these neighborhoods. The saddest part of the resulting psychogeographic schizophrenia could be that the highway can be interpreted as a blessing. Built in the 1950s to connect downtown to Prince George’s County, I-295 buffered working-class African-American communities like River Terrace, Mayfair, and Eastland Gardens from the deterioration of Greenway to the south and Deanwood to the east.
As a result, these beautified inner-city nabes look more like Spielberg-esque suburbs than many actual suburbs, engendering an unpleasant cognitive dissonance. The pleasant-looking surroundings are enough to inspire thoughts of a nice bike ride through Drive-Over Country. But where to? Yum’s Carry Out? Over the Benning Road bridge?
And 295’s no Berlin Wall: Residents of Mayfair Mansions, once proud to live in a complex conceived by a black architect and funded by a black radio evangelist, were forced to call in the Nation of Islam in 1988 to battle drug dealers. Looking to live next to a major city’s power station and battle asthma, bronchitis, and cancer? Neither were residents of River Terrace, but they wake up every morning next to Pepco.
Of course, these neighborhoods are damn close to downtown, damn near new stadium development, and still (relatively) damn cheap. It may not be morning yet in Drive-Over Country, but it’s definitely around 4:30 a.m., maybe 4:45. Minnesota Avenue was included in Williams’ Great Streets initiative, but development is clustered to the south closer, to Pennsylvania Avenue and to the west along Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. When people talk about Anacostia riverfront renewal, they ain’t talking about this riverfront. Kenilworth-Parkside recreation complex, aka “The Rec,” is scheduled to be renovated —and has been scheduled to be renovated for a number of years now. The Department of Employment Services will relocate near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, at least, it was supposed to in 2006. Do not doubt that change is coming to these hoods. Just remember that it won’t come running.
• At the border of Greenway and Benning, the Shrimp Boat offers large crab legs at $7.99 per pound (see HUDson Valley). Those new to the District will be less interested in the prices than in the fact that, if you are on East Capitol Street and the Shrimp Boat is on your right, you are heading west.
• In Ward 7, not noted for its sit-down restaurants, the Bagel Bakery at 3839 Minnesota Ave. NE provides something decent to spread cream cheese on as well as Caribbean cuisine.
• The African Heritage Dance Center (4018 Minnesota Ave. NE) hosts children’s workshops. Its unlikely spot at the corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE is marked by a striking hand-painted sign.
• Eighteen holes will cost $30 on a weekend at Langston Golf Course (28th Street and Benning Road NE), which opened to meet demand for an African-American golf course in 1929.
• Drive-Over Country is home to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, one of the city’s great natural resources. Tucked into the middle-class grid of Eastland Gardens, these federally-run wetlands do it all. They protect east-of-the-river nabes from flooding; they provide a habitat for all manner of frogs and other marshy wildlife; and the park is a great field trip for the whole family or science class. But please take caution: Those marshes and little pools of water have no fences. If you fall in, you’ve fallen into a marsh that’s 8,000 years old; good luck getting out.