Urban Waterways

Urban Waterways is a research and educational initiative which seeks to better understand the ongoing relationships between urban communities and their waterways. The project stemmed from a desire to fully explore Washington, D.C.’s ongoing relationship with the Anacostia River. How does a river become invisible? How does it fade from the public’s consciousness? What does that invisibility mean for the people living along its banks?

We have sought to explore such questions with the understanding that the impacts of waterways extend far beyond their banks. Communities and waterways share not only space, both physical and emotional, but histories, presents and futures. Such a dynamic connection can only be explored from a multitude of perspectives which include questions of justice, class, race, politics, health, development, faith, history, and the arts.

More voices from the Urban Waterways project can be heard here.

Video file

[Interview: Shannah Cumberbatch, Volunteer and Engagement Associate for Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens]

Shannah: When I was younger, and I think some people might agree, I wanted to be David Attenborough for forever always wanted to be him loved watching him in nature documentaries that's kind of what propelled me into the science world.

[Photos: Shannah smiling with a prairie dog and feeding a bobcat in a cage]

[Interview: Akiima Price, Akiima Price Consulting]

Akiima: Behind our homes was this dirt field and for us it was still somewhere to run and play because you know in the neighborhood they built for us there weren't really fields but there was like a little merry-go-round but you know as kids you want to run.

[Photo: A family of four in a canoe on the Anacostia River looking out at RFK stadium]

Akiima: Our version of nature I guess was like even an urbanized nature right on the cusp of South East and Ward 8.

[Interview: Elana Mintz, Founder/Executive Director of Urban Adventure Squad & Urban Learning and Teaching Center]

Elena: You know my existence as a child was probably very much urban plus ocean and I've been drawn to places that kind of had both.

[Photo: A group of kids in winter coats and face masks smiling for a selfie with Elena in sunglasses and a face mask]

[Interview: Tara Morrison, Superintendent of National Capital Parks - East]

Tara: We lived on the long island sound and water is something that's always been really important to me. So my mother and sister and I, we would take walks, and one of the things that she would say is a family that walks together, stays together.

[Photo: Tara waving between two other National Park Service employees in ranger uniform walking with an Anacostia Park sign]

[Photos: Tina’s mother holds Tina’s child’s hand as they walk on grass, Tina’s mother shoveling near a garden with Tina’s toddler, Tina speaking into a microphone]

[Interview: Tina O’Connell, Executive Director of Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens]Tina: We had a relationship with the land my entire life in a very daily almost work-oriented way and thinking about you know what we can give it and what it can get back to us for like a well-lived life.

[Interview: Imani Black, Founder & CEO of Minorities In Aquaculture]

Imani: We've got lawyers and doctors and things like that in my family so I kind of was like going against the grain saying I want to do something with biology.

[Photos: Imani smiling in orange waders on a dock, Imani looking through a scope in a lab, Imani working on shells in a lab, archive photo of two watermen on a boat, archive photo of three watermen on a boat, archive photo of three men working on a pile with wheel barrows, Archive photo of two women and a man talking by the harbor]

Imani: My draw to the water my draw to just environmental restoration conservation it actually came from 200 years before just with family and stuff on along the eastern shore being watermen and in the packing houses and seafood houses.

[Archive Photos: Two watermen on a boat, three watermen on a boat, three men working on a pile with wheel barrows, two women and a man talking by the harbor]

But it wasn't until you know years later I think I was like in my teens when my mom really got invested into our genealogy as a family and then she kind of realized that I was bringing the family back like full circle.

[Photo: Imani in orange waders sitting on the ledge of a boat looking into the sunset]

[Graphic: A logo reads, “Anacostia Community Museum Smithsonian” above a quote that reads, At the end of the day, it all comes down to people and relationships.”]

[Video: The Anacostia River with lush green banks at sunset, a bee flying around a lotus flower, a sprig of a purple flower in front of the river]

Akiima: If people could understand and see themselves in this river from the perspective of not same struggle but similar struggle of trauma they could better understand and also if they started to realize what a watershed was and that it wasn't dirty because your neighborhoods are dirty it's dirty because people in the upper side parts of the the watershed aren't picking up their trash this river was key to the development of Washington DC and that story is not often

[Photo: A graphic map of the Anacostia watershed in Maryland and the District of Columbia][Video: Racked focus on a cluster of lotus flowers and greenery floating on the river, a pathway next to the river of lotus flowers, a park ranger and five others walk along a boardwalk over the river with binoculars]

Elena: The trust for public land rated us number one on its park score and one of the metrics is what percentage of residents are within a 10-minute walk of a green space or a public park and it's 98 of DC residents are within a 10-minute walk.

[Video: Two people walk along a boardwalk over the river, Two people laugh together in front of lush greenery, Two people look through binoculars on a boardwalk]

Elena: You can't feel like it's not part of you you can't feel like you have to go to a destination to experience what it means to be in nature. I think that's really wrong and I think that's what has caused many of us to feel like we we don't belong or nature is not accessible to us.

[Photos: Three kids inspect organic matter as a ranger points]

[Video: A person in a hat crouches to take a photo of a lotus flower]

[Photo: A volunteer smiles while holding up a rake and a clump of muddy roots, three kids on a boat looking at a bridge, four kids at the river’s edge inspecting something, a kid paddling a canoe in front of a bridge and more canoers, five kids look through leaves at the river]

[Video: A cluster of lotus flowers and greenery floating on the river, a group of kids around Tina looking at greenery]

Tina: Really thinking about different ways to meet people where they are in their relationship with green space.

[Photos: An adult holds a large bird as kids watch, Tina and three others smile together in front of trees, a kid painting a flower in a group]

Tina: How do we use this space this outdoor space to help people cope and recover and heal from what we've all been going through through the pandemic especially the more vulnerable among us that have really been affected like what what can we do?

[Video: A table of volunteers help others sign in and give out information, a group of kids and adults seated around a picnic table facing one way listening, a picnic table of kids coloring, one kid up close coloring at the table, three kids crowded around a bee colony in a glass box with an adult, closer up of kids looking at a bee colony in a glass box, a kid inspecting a large green leaf from a lotus]

Shannah: So it's kind of the premise of our wilderness programming was it was piloted towards the residents in ward 7 and 8 so that they can get a feel for the park themselves and come outand explore it and realize that hey this is a space for me, for my mental health if I need that just a space to escape and relax and get away from life and I know that it's here and it's free and it's available and I can use it and own it.

[Video: A group of kids collecting water samples near large lotus plants, a kid up close inspecting a jar of water, a group of kids walking down a path near lotus plants]

Imani: You don't have to be a certain kind of person to do this like you could be anybody and you should everybody should do it because especially with aquaculture like this is what's impacting our food resource our food security so like everybody should learn about it and I think like the history part of it it kind of makes a little bit easier because it's like no no we're not trying to like we're not new to this space we're not trying to bring you into a space that's like not for us like if you as you can see it was for us but now we're trying to bring everybody back.

[Photos: Two people fishing off rocks on the Anacostia River, six people on a canoe on the river smiling and paddling, two kids smiling big on a boat next to an adult and another kid, three people on a boat under a canopy looking off to the river bank]

Volunteer: Hello people how are you doing? My name is Byndom, I'm here to tell you go out to your community, give back, help the environment...

[Video: Two volunteers smile and address the camera wearing waders, volunteers in the river pulling out dead plants near the bank, volunteers shovel mud onto the bank close up, volunteers shovel mud onto the bank near a pathway]

Tara: My interest in working with the National Park Service was really grounded in helping communities to preserve their history how do we build relationships with our park neighbors park users so that one they feel welcome coming into these spaces that belong to them and we're also taking the opportunity to help them understand why there are some things that you can't do in the parks and that goes back to everybody being an environmentalist so if we all understand what we have to do to care for these spaces so that these spaces can be there for us because at the end of the day, it all comes down to people and relationships.

[Video: A large area of volunteers at work and running around, three volunteers shoveling mud onto the bank, a large area of volunteers at work, volunteers being helped into the water with shovels, three volunteers smiling and working together in the water, a group of volunteers walk a wheel barrow full of tools down a pathway ]

[Photos: A group photo of volunteers wearing “I heart Anacostia Park” tops]

Akiima: It could not be superficial and surface and just like we checked off the box we we talked to the church we're good no we had to like really you know I went to a lot of funerals I went to a lot of church dinners I went to a lot of just neighborhood events and didn't even talk about what I wanted.Akiima: I just sat with them to kind of again listen but also you know be present.

[Video: The river with giant lily pads on it at sunset, closer up on a few lily pads on the water at sunset, leaves and brush near the river and rack focus onto a blade of grass, a bank of the river at sunset by a leaning tree, a wide area of river with lily pads, trees and shrubs]

Tina: This is important like this is an important space and we need to figure out how to make the most of that.

[Video: A large bird takes off and flies away from the lush shores of the Anacostia river at sunset]

[Graphic: A logo reads, “Anacostia Community Museum Smithsonian” above text that reads, “To learn more, visit anacostia.si.edu/urban-waterways”]

[Graphic: Text that reads, “Thanks to the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian Regional Councils”]

The above media is provided by

[Photo: A logo reads, “Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.”] 

Narrator: Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum presents the 2021 Women of The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit with Susana Almanza, Dr. Mildred McClain, Vernice Miller-Travis, Donele Wilkins, and moderator Katrina Lashley. 

[Video: Susana wears a colorful black blouse.] 

Susana Almanza: I was real fortunate to have them as my parents. I come from a family of 10 and basically everyone in my neighborhood had large families. And so, when two families got together, the kids got together, you thought a baseball tournament was happening, but it was just two families getting together. That's the way things were forced in a segregated part of east Austin, the streets were not paved. There wasn't lighting. All of the things that, you know, people take for granted now, you know, gutters, lighting, sidewalks, all this stuff did not really exist in the segregated part of, east Austin. But I feel real fortunate. My realization in the environment and recognizing is because like I said even though we were in the urban core we had chickens, we had chickens and we had rabbits and my mother gardened, we grew lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and my mother also was a healer. So, we always had a big spider net on the side of the house that my mom would not let us touch. We could feed it ants and watch it because that was the natural band-aids for cuts and so forth in our community. And so, that really grounded me. We were rooted very much rooted in the Earth and that's how I see the environment through a real indigenous perspective that the Earth was not just a planet. It was a mother, it was Mother Earth to us.   

[Video: Mildred wears a white blouse and glasses.]  

Dr. Mildred McClain:  

I would be always in the streets playing barefoot and grew to really love the soil my mama said that I used to eat up the Georgia red clay, it was so sweet. But I think more than being sweet, it was very healing and like Susana said, our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, they all engaged in what we call now alternative or traditional medicine. My ancestral connection to the ocean is very deep but here in Savannah, during my growing up, we could not go to the ocean in Savannah. We had to travel all the way to a place called Hilton Head, South Carolina. And it was there that black men, let me repeat that: black men owned three beaches in South Carolina. So my mother, one of her requirements after my father, her boyfriend had to have a car because on every Sunday he had to take us to the ocean in South Carolina. And we learned a reverence for the ocean. 

[Video: Vernice wears a coral sweater and white blouse with glasses.] 

Vernice Miller-Travis:  

We were a textbook case of where you didn't want to live, what you didn't want to live next to, and how you didn't want your children to have to live like that. And so, for some reason, we stumbled across this information. Every junior high school, every middle school in northern Manhattan was built next to a bus depot. There are seven municipal bus depots. I think they're eight now, in Manhattan, seven of them are in northern Manhattan where the black and brown people were. So, we have particulate pollution. We had abnormally high asthma rates. We, everybody always had asthma when I was growing up. I was fortunate, and I did not have asthma, but everybody else in my class always had asthma. It was a huge issue for us, and nobody could put their hands on it until we started doing the organizing that we did for West Harlem Environmental Action. It was a difficult place to be from an environmental standpoint, but yet, just south of us well, first of all, next door to us were very affluent community. So, New York is a really odd bird like that. Our zip code, which was 10035 was one of the poorest zip codes in the entire United States at the time. Adjacent to us is the upper east side of Manhattan, the Silk Stocking District, right, which is one of the most affluent zip codes in the entire United States of America, has always been. And so, there was that poverty and that affluence jammed right next to each other. And so, as black and brown people, you would get on buses. So, if you see that movie Claudine. Diahann Carroll is a maid in that movie and she gets on a bus in Harlem and the bus travels uptown and it goes to the Bronx to a neighborhood called Riverdale, which is, you know, people think of the Archie Comics and thinking it's a made-up place. No, it is one of the most affluent communities in the United States of America.  And its right there in the Bronx, the same Bronx that holds the South Bronx also holds Riverdale, right. And so, that juxtaposition is all over New York City and as people of color, your face is ground in it every day. 

[Video: Donele wears gray blouse with glasses.] 

Donele Wilkins:  

I'm like Dr. McClain, it is where I live. It is where, I worship and play and I am educated and loved. That's the environment for me. And it happens to embody the air that we breathe and the water that we drink and the playgrounds we play on. That's the environment for me. Similarly, I'm not sure what justice is. I remember thinking when I started the Green Door Initiative is if environmental justice hit me in the face would I recognize it? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What is environmental justice, right? And we fought so hard. My bio didn't include my first 15 years of  working in the movement because I started the Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, where there, we wanted to make sure that environmental justice was a household phrase and that it was something that we had to fight for and achieve. But in this moment, my thing is trying to manifest what that looks like for the people in my community, what it looks like to be able to enjoy clean air, what it looks like to be able to drink safe water, and they have access to affordable water. What it looks like for my children to be able to go into school buildings and not have asthma triggers or be on top of some kind of contaminated site, because of all of the, manufacturing legacies that left a bunch of dirt, and mess and toxins and whatever for us to deal with and then get blamed that our city is dirty and nasty and what's wrong with black people kind of narrative. 

[Photo: A logo reads, “Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.”]

The above media is provided by

[Photo: A logo reads, “Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.”] 

Narrator: Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum presents the following audio interview with Antonio Gonzalez, “Parks not Warehouses,” He worked as President of the William C. Velasquez Institute and mother organization Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The narrative is overlayed with photos illustrating the landscape and events described.  

[Photo: Antonio Gonzalez smiles in front of a mural.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: Environmental justice is really the wrong word. 

[Photo: Los Angeles cornfields in a park.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: Most ways we're like taking the reins of power and re-envisioning the natural and built environments where we have power. 

[Photo: A sign reads, “Why is there a park here at all?”] 

Antonio Gonzalez: And we know the environmental constituencies are important just from a politics point of view in the nineties and were interacting with them. But it's really not until the end of the 1990s, when there are really pretty spontaneous urban rebellions in Los Angeles 

[Photo Skyrise buildings are shown in the distance of cornfields.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: against the redevelopment of two gigantic brownfields in the heart of the urban community. 

[Photo: Los Angeles cornfields in a park.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: Now, the Parque del Rio de Los Angeles in the Los Angeles state historic park, 

[Photo: A sign reads, “Zanja Madre” near railroad tracks.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: They were rail yards, one 50 acres, one 30 acres. 

[Photo: A park with buildings in the distance.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: It's pretty intense resistance to developers supported by Latino elected officials who are sort of in the old school, which is environment is not our issue. 

[Photo: A bridge is constructed in a park.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: And there is a community resistance to plans to develop both of those sites. And we get involved with that.  

[Photo: A group of boys play soccer on a dirt road.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: We're in these communities, they should be parks, not warehouses 

[Photo: Two park signs, one reads, “A Park is Made For By People” the other, “We Need Parks Not Warehouses.”] 

And after a couple of years by about 2002 big voter mobilizations around water bonds, and we sort of connect the dots. 

[Photo: A bridge near water.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: And by 2004, the whole LA river movement has begun to crystallize. In 2004, in the middle of the presidential mobilization, 

[Photo: Irma Munoz sits in front of a microphone wearing a black shirt and sweater.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: very busy and a delegation. 

[Photo: Robert Garcia speaks in front of a microphone.] 

[Photo: Raul Macias looks down while speaking on a panel.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: Of Irma Munoz, Robert Garcia from the City Project, and Raul Macias from Anahuak show up in my office and they say, you know, we're getting rolled on the LA River. 

[Photo: A cliff of homes sit in the distance over a body of water.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: We're getting excluded. City's running over us. Our voices aren't being heard. They're having meetings without us in attendance. They're not in the community. The white boys are doing it again. to put it bluntly, right. 

[Photo: A sign reads, “Los Angeles River Marsh Park”.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: And they've got some Latino allies and we need to stop it. It was a river revitalization plan is being developed and it’s not taking our interests into account. 

[Photo: People in a park on a sunny day.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: By coincidence, we've just crystallized a partnership with the Earth Day Network to run a national partnership between the Earth Day Network, the NAACP National Voter Fund, to do the first ever sort of people of color green vote campaign. It was called Campaign for Communities. 

[Photo: A bilingual sign reads, “Let’s Go Fishing! ¡Vamos A Pescar!] 

Antonio Gonzalez: So, it all sort of bubbles up together. We are also carrying out an accountability effort. 

[Photo: A map of Los Angeles and Rio de Los Angeles State Park.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: The City Fathers in Los Angeles for running this traditional elitist, techno-green revitalization planning process that excludes Asians and Latinos and it's monolingual. 

[Photo: Antonio Gonzalez smiles in front of a mural]  

Antonio Gonzalez: And the meetings are at 11 o'clock in the morning and not in the evening and excludes active recreation. It's a nasty fight. We are sitting in at meetings and protesting, you know, 

[Photo: Los Angeles State Historic Park, Los Angeles, California.] 

Antonio Gonzalez:  so that was, that was it. There was a particular target at that time. It was the Annenberg. 

[Photo: A cornfield at Los Angeles on a sunny day.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: One of the Annenberg Foundation heirs had in essence, you know, privately expropriated the cornfield for an art project without community input. 

[Photo: A bridge overlooking the city and a park.] 

Antonio Gonzalez: Took over the whole project, planted a corn field. Within six months, we got them to recalibrate and be more expansive and open with the planning process. 

[Photo: A logo reads, “Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.”]

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