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It's Our River: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement at Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

by Robert García and Daphne P. Hsu*
on September 13, 2013 10:00 AM

Communities across the nation and around the world are rising up to reclaim urban waterways, change urban landscapes, and alter the relations of power. Greening urban rivers and inner cities is not just about conservation values -- as important as those are -- it's about the people who live along the rivers, and the future of children and our world.

The exhibit "Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways & Civic Engagement" at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum examines successful grassroots efforts to recover, clean up, and re-imagine urban rivers for community access. The mission of the Anacostia Community Museum is to challenge perceptions, broaden perspectives, generate new knowledge, and deepen understanding about the ever-changing concepts and realities of "community."

The exhibit, and the Museum's 46th Anniversary celebration on September 13 at the National Press Club [Ed. note: Robert Garcia will be the keynote speaker], focuses on reclaiming the edge of urban waterways around the world, including the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles, California; Suzhou Creek, Shanghai, China; the Thames, London, England; the Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky; the Allegheny and the Monongahela, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C.

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What do these efforts have in common?

The Potomac in D.C. is well known and highly regarded. The Anacostia River, however, in disproportionately African American Southeast D.C., "for political and historical reasons [is] little-known, hardly mentioned as a city amenity, and often regarded as the city's backdoor and sewer conduit. The Anacostia River is also a key part of the city's social and racial ecology," according to the exhibit's materials. Now the community is taking charge and better care of the Anacostia. "The river calls us and we commune with nature in the midst of urban hustle and bustle." People fish, hike, bike, bird, paddle, sit, and play along the Anacostia.

The exhibit highlights the work of community leaders in greening the L.A. River, including Leo Limon's River Catz

Poet Lewis MacAdams writes of the Los Angeles River:

  the River can be louder than
      the thunder rolling out of the San Gabriels,
             The Voice of the River
   is the golf balls clanking in the
        power towers, and the kids on their bicycles
        laughing when they spot the mud people
          moving along the sand bars
           in silent meditation.


--Lewis MacAdams, The River: Book Three

The exhibit highlights the work of community leaders in greening the L.A. River, including Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), The City Project, Anahuak Youth Sports Association, COFEM, Leo Limon's gatito art, public officials, and others. By coincidence, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to release its draft study to green the river on September 13, 2013.

In Louisville, diverse groups banded together to transform abandoned rail yards, toxic spill sites, and vacant warehouses into playgrounds, biking trails, and concert facilities.

Community efforts in Pittsburgh are greening an industrial waterfront.

East London built a sports complex along the river.

Shanghai is cleaning up a polluted river.

The common thread? People are acting up and shouting out, "It's our river!"


Learning to paddle a voyageur canoe on the Anacostia River<br />
Photograph by Keith Hyde, US Army Corps of Engineers, 2011<br />
Wilderness Inquiry, Minneapolis, Minnesota<br />

* * *

The exhibition continues through November 3, 2013.

Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum
1901 Fort Place SE * Washington DC * 20020
Open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. * Admission Free


*Daphne P. Hsu is a Staff Attorney at The City Project. She works to ensure healthy, livable communities for all. 

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