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Let me warn you about Anacostia: If you move there, your friends are going to make all sorts of stupid remarks about it right to your face. They will ask you if you carry a gun. They will be quite concerned about your well-being and they will, in all likelihood, not come see you at your large and inexpensive historic home. If the soccer stadium proposed for nearby Poplar Point is built, those people will buy neighboring houses for quite a bit more money than you paid for yours, and you’ll all have a good time together at all the cafes and bars and restaurants that are sure to follow.
But until the soccer stadium is built, until the bars and your friends arrive, what can you expect in Anacostia? For one, a delicious plate of macaroni and cheese at the neighborhood’s one real restaurant: a soul food joint called Anacostia Restaurant & Catering (1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE), run by Evangeline Cole-Thompson—“Mama Cole”—who will call you “Dear” when she comes by to make sure you’re enjoying your food.
Also, expect to be chatted up by the men hanging out on the sidewalks and front porches drinking out of bottles encased in plastic bags.
And to be spellbound, a little, by the Big Chair, if you are the kind of person who likes Big Chairs.
“I wish people would think of Anacostia as more than the Big Chair,” says David Garber, an Anacostia blogger—and one of Anacostia’s few white guys—standing on Anacostia’s main drag in front of the aforementioned Big Chair, which might even be called the Biggest Chair, as it is said to be the world’s largest. It is 19.5 feet tall.
Garber wishes people would focus more on Anacostia’s gorgeous old houses—lots of 19th-century wood-framed stand-alones in various states of solidity and decrepitude—and the potential for its historic main street to be rehabbed into a more Georgetown-like place. The buildings are lovely, and the sidewalks have potential, though you get the feeling it’s going to take a long time before blond yuppies spend their flip-flopped weekends drunkenly stumbling around here.
Frederick Douglass’ house is in Anacostia, a block or so off the main street, up on a hill with a view of downtown. Guided tours tell you all about it. An art gallery has frequently changing exhibits and poetry readings; the river—polluted, yes, but close by—offers strolling and boating opportunities. The Smithsonian runs the Anacostia Community Museum, with excellent exhibits on the neighborhood’s history.
What else does Anacostia offer?
“It’s quiet,” Garber says.
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Anacostia was developed as an all-white suburb called Uniontown in 1854 and in its early days, some of Washington, D.C.’s biggest slaveholders lived there. Then a steadily increasing number of freed slaves moved to an Anacostia development called Barry’s Farm and adjacent areas once slavery was abolished in D.C. after 1862. Frederick Douglass moved to Anacostia in 1877. He was called the “Sage of Anacostia” and worked as a writer, banker, policy guy, vice-presidential candidate, and lecturer. Douglass broke Uniontown’s all-white covenant with his home purchase and for the next 70-odd years, Anacostia was a pretty stable, mixed-race kind of village, set apart from the rest of D.C. by its watery boundaries and lack of good public transportation.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation in 1954, Anacostia was hit by a double whammy: Whites fled to the suburbs, making Anacostia both less stable and less diverse, and D.C. built 30,000-plus public housing units in the neighborhood, bringing another element of instability—as well as poverty—to the neighborhood. Barry’s Farm, the development for freed slaves, became Barry Farm, one of the city’s largest public housing projects. Anacostia’s schools became overcrowded, its public transportation was under-developed, and the word “Anacostia” became something of a shorthand for urban blight in Southeast. It has remained that way for a long time.
But now there are people who are trumpeting Anacostia’s return, and professionals are finding their way into the neighborhood’s large houses. Yavocka D. Young, for example, is executive director of Main Street Anacostia, an economic development group. She moved to Anacostia 15 years ago and expected development would have come faster. But she loves the neighborhood anyway.
“It has a village feel, very close-knit,” says Young, who is running to represent Anacostia and the rest of Ward 8 on the D.C. Council. “Very green, lots of trees. Here you can get a rooftop deck condo, other places in the city you’d get a studio. But you can’t walk down the street and be downtown, either.”
Young says she’s happy to see Anacostia attracting newcomers, and she hopes that the proposed revitalization on the waterfront and in the Barry Farm public housing project come through—a necessary precursor to the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops she was hoping would be there already.
One coffee shop—called Big Chair Coffee, of course—is in the works, and a restaurant and lounge might be moving in, too, though Young says there’s been talk of the restaurant and lounge for two years already.
• Go-go music, D.C.’s indigenous percussive funk, was especially popular in Anacostia in its heyday. There’s a picture of go-go godfather Chuck Brown atop the Big Chair in the Anacostia Community Museum. Acts like Barry Farm’s Junk Yard Band got big in the ’80s and then got a bad name with law enforcement and NIMBY types. Despite efforts to ban live go-go at various clubs around town, the genre lives on: At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a sign announces an early Juneteenth event—Jammin’ 4 Jesus—that features go-go.
• No basketball league has become more legendary than the George Goodman League. Since the mid-’70s, the league has dominated summers in Barry Farm and become a favorite among NBA stars to prove their street cred. Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Steve Francis are among the stars who’ve hit the courts. But don’t expect any star treatment from the league’s commissioner and play-by-play man, Miles Rawls. “We treat everybody fair inside the gate,” he says. “Only treatment they get, they get to park their vehicles in the VIP parking lot I have for them. But when they lace up and step on that blacktop, they get the same treatment as everybody else.”