Alive and Well in Anacostia Park
Amid the pandemic, the social fabric remains strong in one of the U.S. capital’s most vital public spaces.
Text & photos—Tom Sandner
The weather was typical for an August afternoon in Washington, D.C. It was a sunny, hot, and humid day with the temperature reading just above 90°F (about 32°C). I was visiting Anacostia Park for the first time since my wife and I moved to D.C. from Colorado earlier that spring. Having been sequestered in our apartment during the pandemic, I’d forgotten how gruelling the heat could be on a summer afternoon in the Mid-Atlantic. Nevertheless, I ventured along the path that followed the bank of the Anacostia River. Lush green meadows blanket much of the land beside the water. I watched the tall grass sway gracefully in the wind while quietly trying to name as many birds as I could — I can only attest to spotting ducks, geese, and what I think was a heron.
The Anacostia River flows from Prince George’s County in Maryland through southeast D.C., where it eventually empties into the Potomac River. The park was developed in the early 20th century.
In 1933 the National Park Service assumed responsibility over the land, which it maintains to this day. Spanning over 1,200 acres, Anacostia Park is one of the largest recreation areas in the nation’s capital.
Anacostia Park from the vantage point of the John Philip Sousa Bridge, which connects Pennsylvania Avenue across the river.
What brought me to the park was my plan to spend the summer taking photos around the city as a way to get to know the community. Amid the ongoing global health crisis, I felt most comfortable meeting people in open spaces (while, of course, wearing a face mask).
Early in my inaugural park visit, I noticed an older man jogging, who stopped frequently to shadowbox along the footpath. As his sparring wound down, I approached him and introduced myself. His name was Vince. With pride in his voice, he let me know that he was 70 years old. His resilience to the withering heat was inspiring. Still, not long after meeting Vince, I succumbed to the heat and fled to my car. I vowed I would return, but next time, I’d make sure to arrive early in the morning. All in all, I ended up walking the park several days a week for the remainder of the summer.
The word “Anacostia” derives from the language of the Nacotchtanks, the first known Indigenous people in the region. By the end of the 17th century, European colonizers had driven most of the Nacotchtanks from their homeland, clearing the way for numerous plantations that relied on slave labour. Following the Civil War, a brutal program of segregation divided the Anacostia neighbourhood into white and Black communities. As in so many American cities in the 1950s, when faced with integration, white people fled for the nearby suburbs. Today, the neighbourhood along the eastern banks of the Anacostia River is predominantly Black.
I spent many mornings in the park waiting for the sun to rise and the light to fall onto the river. As I met more and more people, a common theme began to take shape. Many talked about the strong sense of community they got from the park. “It’s a place to meet my great Ward 8 community and neighbours,” said Shelena Harris, a proud local. Harris’s openness and sociability was the rule, not the exception, I discovered.
Often, I was greeted with a wave or a smile from strangers who passed me along the river. The way people related to each other felt uncommonly sincere and generous.
On one of the last summer mornings of the year, I decided to finally approach a man who I often noticed walking his dog in the park. He introduced himself as Tom, and his dog as JoJo. After an exchange of pleasantries, he informed me that he’d been coming to the park nearly every day for the past 10 years. He told me about JoJo’s late companion, a dog that he recently had to put down due to its deteriorating health. His voice betrayed his grief as he talked about the friend he’d lost. I was touched by his vulnerability. In the era of COVID-19, when physical distancing makes familiarity harder, moments like that remind me that we could all use more authentic connections with strangers. Thankfully, parks like Anacostia still offer a place to be real with each other.
Tom Sandner is an editorial photographer based in Washington, D.C. His work is driven by his desire to meet new and interesting people: he looks for the subtle commonalities among individuals that make us all human. He also loves to tell people all of the good things about his hometown of Buffalo, New York, while dodging comments about its annual snowfall.