If Anacostia is on the cusp of a renaissance, you wouldn’t know it stepping out of the Metro station there. Turn right, and you’re greeted by a sprawling bus lot that consumes most of a city block to the station’s south. While high-end residences or offices and bustling retail occupy Metro-adjacent sites elsewhere along the Green Line, the expanse of asphalt and bus shelters next to the Anacostia station sends the message that the prime real estate in the neighborhood just isn’t that valuable yet.
On a recent morning, the would-be passengers clustered around most of the bus shelters were dressed in street clothes and engaged in a variety of activities: some chatting, some nodding along to tunes from their headphones, a couple reading Express, and most simply waiting for the bus. They represented a wide range of ages, but were nearly all black. The A4 bus stop was different. Its gathered patrons were mostly white, and all were absorbed in their smartphones. With the exception of one man in full military gear, all wore work slacks and had government lanyards or badges showing.
Heading in the other direction, the A4 takes passengers through the poorest sections of Ward 8, to Congress Heights and the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant and the former site of the shuttered D.C. Village homeless shelter. But to these passengers, traveling southwest along Firth Sterling Avenue SE, the A4 is merely a one-stop shuttle bringing them from the Metro to their place of employment, the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters.
The Coast Guard has been at the St. Elizabeths West Campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE for just about a year: Public officials cut the ribbon in July 2013, and move-in took place gradually until December. Formerly home to a federally run mental institution that began operating in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, St. Elizabeths is now bifurcated, with the West Campus holding the Coast Guard and the presumed future headquarters of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, pending federal funding, while the District-owned East Campus still contains a small active hospital and is set to be developed into a mix of uses over the coming years.
At last year’s ribbon-cutting, city and federal officials hailed the new Coast Guard complex as a catalyst for the revitalization of the struggling neighborhoods that border it, Anacostia and Congress Heights. “In planning the DHS complex, and the Coast Guard headquarters in particular, we have taken the steps to help the DHS complex be a part of the revival of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, as federal agencies have done in other areas, such as NoMa and the Capitol Riverfront,” trumpeted Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
That’s a big ambition: Aided by federal offices, those two neighborhoods have seen a furious development scramble, one that’s brought Harris Teeters, Whole Foods, buzzy restaurants, and high-end apartment buildings loaded with amenities like rooftop pools and dog spas. This is the stuff Anacostia and Congress Heights residents can only dream about, or fear, but in any case don’t have.
And if the Coast Guard’s first year at its new home is any indication, the new federal presence won’t bring it. The community has yet to feel much of an economic impact from the Coast Guard, mostly because its workers hardly ever have occasion to set foot in the nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s pretty tough to integrate with the community when you have a wall around the compound,” says a Coast Guard contractor waiting for the A4, who declines to give his name for fear of compromising his employment.
“Honestly, I really haven’t felt the presence of the Coast Guard in the neighborhood as of yet,” says Charles Wilson, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. “I see the buildings when I drive up and down 295. I know they’re behind the wall. But I haven’t felt the presence.”
Nikki Peele, who writes the Congress Heights on the Rise blog and works at ARCH Development Corporation in Anacostia, agrees. “I haven’t seen anything change from the Coast Guard’s presence,” she says. “You can’t expect to put a walled complex in a community and expect it to be integrated.”
Military facilities haven’t historically been paragons of community development. Bolling Air Force Base, just across the Anacostia Freeway from St. Elizabeths, might as well be across the country for the impact it has on the local economy and culture (other than denying the city a potentially valuable stretch of riverfront real estate). The Coast Guard headquarters is a Level-V security facility, so neighbors can’t exactly stroll around the campus for exercise or a glimpse at one of the city’s best views at “The Point.”
Meanwhile, the long-planned DHS move won’t help the neighborhood anytime soon. Originally set for completion as soon as this year, the DHS headquarters now isn’t expected to be done until 2026, and it’s more than 50 percent over budget. A recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress recommended consideration of alternative sites for a DHS headquarters, although DHS and the General Services Administration continue to back the plan.
But the Coast Guard has begun making an effort to be a good neighbor. That effort starts, and largely ends, with a lieutenant commander named Jonathan Schafler.
Schafler, 54, isn’t the most obvious choice to lead a crusade for military-urban integration. He lives with his family in West Virginia, and he came to the Coast Guard after retiring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with stints in remote locales from Kodiak Island off the Alaskan coast to the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
And yet the garrulous Schafler displays an almost exaggerated passion for his work. His cubicle walls are plastered with photos of himself with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, school kids, and neighborhood leaders. He goes to “about 47” community meetings per month, he estimates, mostly in wards 7 and 8, and keeps a running log of them. “Anacostia Coordinating Council” has 10 tick marks next to it; so does “Congress Heights Civic Association.” (When I take note of the numbers, Schafler quickly says they’re old and need updating.)
The origin of Schafler’s job as the Coast Guard’s first-ever D.C. community affairs officer dates to his early days at the armed forces branch, when he served another role and walked home daily to K Street SE. “I was running into all these great restaurants and places,” he recalls, “and so I asked, ‘Who’s doing community outreach?’” There was no one dedicated exclusively to the task, and so Schafler “jumped the chain of command,” he says, and volunteered himself.
“All of these people are focused on our national program,” Schafler says of his colleagues. “And who’s focused on our local program? Me.”
Schafler now navigates a packed schedule of community events, and during the week he lives in a “man cave” in Hillcrest, although he says he’s looking into buying a place in Ward 8, “because that’s where my constituents are.” He wrangles his colleagues into volunteering at local schools or helping clean up nearby parks, a task made easier by the Coast Guard’s policy of allowing up to 40 hours a year of paid community service per year for civilian employees. Workers also get bonus points in their performance evaluations for community involvement.
“We have 4,000 people,” Schafler says. “If we got 10 percent of those, 400 people, to be volunteers, how great would that be?” Currently, there are about 80.
“He comes to all the [advisory neighborhood commission] meetings, all the community meetings,” Greta Fuller, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for much of Anacostia, says of Schafler. “He’s been very helpful with different activities in the community. The Coast Guard gives their time and whatever support they can. We definitely feel their presence that way.”
But community service only goes so far. If the Coast Guard, and the larger Homeland Security team that’s expected to follow, are to have a real economic impact, their workers will have to start spending money in the community. Schafler raves about Mama’s Kitchen in Anacostia— “they’ve got the best freakin’ ribs in the country”—but admits it’s hard to get Coast Guard workers to make the mile-plus trek there or to the few other local eateries for lunch.
The city made an effort to lure Coast Guard employees off of their compound by erecting an $8 million temporary “Gateway Pavilion” just across Martin Luther King from the DHS complex on the East Campus and offering teensy rents—initially $1 a month, then reduced to free—to food trucks and other vendors who set up shop there. But the pavilion hasn’t really brought Coast Guard workers into the neighborhood, since a tunnel allows them to access it without setting foot on MLK, the neighborhood’s main drag. And it’s still not exactly flooded with feds at lunchtime.
“We’ve got an underpass to the St. Elizabeths pavilion,” says Schafler. “It’s a 15-minute walk. If you have 30 minutes for lunch, you can’t do it.”
When the West Campus opened, the federal government limited the size of its cafeteria, hoping that workers would be motivated to spill out into the community for lunch. (It also restricted on-site parking to just one space for every four employees to encourage people to take the Metro or bus to work and further engage with the neighborhood.) But many employees simply bring lunch, and the cafeteria, with its brick pizza oven and offerings when I visited like vindaloo pork and curry chicken, is still a lot more appealing than a trek into Congress Heights for a bite from a carryout.
“If there were a Tyson’s Corner there, you think people would go there for lunch?” Schafler asks. “Yeah. If you build it, they will come.”
That might not be exactly what locals want to see in their neighborhood. But it’s true that federal employees are unlikely to patronize local establishments until the offerings improve. As it is, even many locals feel the need to leave the area to spend their money.
“As someone who lives in Congress Heights, I don’t know how much I would expect Coast Guard employees to shop in the neighborhood when I myself do not shop in the neighborhood,” says Peele. “The retail is just not at the level of servicing the needs of people who have options.”
I ask the Coast Guard contractor at the bus stop what it would take for him and his colleagues to start spending time—and money—in Anacostia or Congress Heights. “Guaranteed safety,” he answers immediately. After a pause, he adds, “And a reputation for good food.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard