Although we appreciate your recent coverage of the prospecting going
on at St. Elizabeths Hospital (“Surfin’ Safari” 6/30), we thoroughly regret that your article completely overlooked the same thing these tours overlook: the surrounding community.
St. Elizabeths has long been a mysterious place with limited access and even more limited appeal to the surrounding community. (In the past, Mayor Williams himself has been denied access to the campus.) It has long held the mentally ill within its gates and locked its neighbors out of its lush greenery, gorgeous views, historic buildings, and towering trees. Finally, with the removal of patients from the West Campus, there is a chance that the community might be able to enjoy these treasures.
Before we celebrate the opening of St. Elizabeths, though, we must think of where the patients have gone. There has been no decline in the number of mentally ill people in the District. Rather, through a process of deinstitutionalization, these patients have been transferred out of St. E’s supportive care to public housing, halfway homes, homeless shelters, jail cells, or the streets. Before we decide that we can develop this property, the District needs to reevaluate its treatment of the mentally ill and whether it can sufficiently serve their needs once this facility is completely closed.
Meanwhile, the proposals we hear flying about between such development prospectors as the Northern Virginia tourists you describe are chilling. While we understand that, because of its historic nature, the vast wall that divides the community from the campus must stand, we also know that there are ways to develop the property that encourage people to overcome the physical divide and make the campus part of Anacostia. If a developer, however, brings promises of high-tech jobs and high-rent lofts, that only reinforces the wall and drives the campus further from the culture of Anacostia.
Development is necessary to revitalize Anacostia. But the process for developing St. Elizabeths must involve the community, including residents, civic associations, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A, and the Friends of Saint Elizabeths, from the first to ensure that the development is beneficial. To us, rule No. 1 of revitalizing Anacostia is that any development must enrich the quality of life for the surrounding community. Brian McVay’s vision of “a whole new environment east of the river” may be very different from that of generations of Anacostia residents, and we challenge him to respect their vision before imposing his own.
New Columbia Chapter, Sierra Club