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To find the Anacostia Riverwalk Interim Trail, you first need to get away from the Anacostia River and head for Maine Avenue or 1st Street SE. There, on the sidewalks, new signs announce the existence of the trail, with arrows pointing in several directions.

As of the second week of November, following one arrow a quarter-mile down 1st Street leads to a stretch of orange mud at the corner of Potomac Street, bearing signs of recent digging. Swivel chairs and battered metal desks, evidently cast off from nearby buildings, sit on the sidewalk. The land angles down to meet the river, which is grayish. Out from the shore, at the end of a 150-foot catwalk, sits the Old Capitol Pumphouse.

This is the second of three “demonstration trails,” segments meant to be early installments in a continuous 20-mile path connecting the area around the Anacostia to the National Mall and to existing trails in Maryland. Hikers hoping to take the completed Interim Trail should be prepared to spend more time inland than on the water, hopscotching from Half Street SW to 1st Street SE to the 11th Street Bridge.

A few hundred yards away from the dug-up patch is Darius Phillips, mud-spattered and driving a Bobcat front-end loader. Phillips, 22, is shoving around giant blocks of concrete, guided by signals from Jovon Davis, 19. The lot they’re clearing is slated to be Diamond Teague Park, a wetland nursery where plants will filter rainwater before it reaches the river.

Phillips and Davis are members of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), an Americorps-backed nonprofit that offers local youth a stipend and an education grant for a year’s worth of environmental community service. The 18-member group, headquartered in the pumphouse since 1994, plans to finish the trio of paths by January. By then, the Interim Trail is slated to feature a total of 1,200 yards of pathway—a bit more than 3 percent of the full riverwalk project.

By the standards of Anacostia River trailblazing, that will be a tremendous leap. Plans for a trail were first proposed in 1901 by the McMillan Commission, which created the Mall, cleared the wetlands around the Anacostia, and then stopped. Officials have been tossing around different permutations of the idea ever since. A 100-foot segment by the 11th Street Bridge and an equally tiny portion in Anacostia Park were built at some point—but Uwe S. Brandes, project manager at the District’s Office of Planning, says he doesn’t know when or why. “There was never an organized effort to construct a whole system of trails,” Brandes says.

But in 1999, ECC President Robert Nixon learned from the District Department of Transportation that a segment of the planned trail was supposed to have been built right outside the pumphouse. So corps members started digging outside their front door.

It was an opportune moment: Mayor Anthony A. Williams was unveiling his Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a multi-billion-dollar revitalization plan on the scale of the McMillan plan. The ECC trailblazers applied for and received a $1 million grant from the Department of Transportation to draft a plan for the entire riverwalk. The grant mandated that the construction work should have a job-training component. In 2000, the ECC received a $400,000 share to build the three trail segments.

Corps members and Allentuck Landscaping spent a year designing the trail, developing an eco-friendly plan that includes trenches to soak up runoff. Neighborhood industries joined the effort: D.C. Rock donated hundreds of tons of crushed concrete. And when Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) officials learned the crew was attempting to break concrete with jackhammers, they offered their own bulldozers.

A quarter-mile from the pumphouse, in front of the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center, another ECC site, the rest of the corps is finishing the first patch of trail, smoothing the crushed-concrete surface. “I grew up in a dirty, dirty environment,” says Squad Leader LaShauntae Moore, 24. The construction, Moore says, is “backbreaking work….You joke all day to keep from biting each other’s heads off…but it feels so good to see it done.”

Moore and her squad completed the segment in only a month. But the freshly laid swath stretches barely 400 feet before coming to an abrupt end at the property line, where a lot owned by Douglas Development begins. In all, there are five privately owned properties between the first and second sites and three more between the second and third sites.

Some property owners, such as WASA and the Navy, are actively working to allow access, but others are less eager. ECC Site Manager David W. Smith says that private owners are a lot more likely to allow access once they see what the trail is going to look like. Indeed, last week Douglas Development agreed to allow the trail to pass through its property and committed $25,000 to funding the construction.

Brandes says the prospects for linking the segments are looking up. He points to a quarter-mile segment that the National Park Service recently completed in River Terrace Park and says that the riverwalk will be getting $4 million in federal funding next year. And his office recently rezoned the area to allow new commercial and residential buildings to be built—provided that the new owners agree to locate their buildings 75 feet from the water and allow public access to the trail.

“It’s going to take many years—just as it has in other cities,” Brandes says. “But the reality is, there’s a shovel in the ground and we’ve started.” CP