A yoga class poses in downward dog at Spirit Anacostia Health and Wellness Center, an airy gym on the fifth floor of a building with a panoramic view of the D.C. skyline. Anyone familiar with the stigma of crime and blight that has haunted the neighborhood below might see the meditative moves as evidence of an area in flux.
Like yogis who look to deeper stretches as signs of improvement, Anacostia has seen a recent spate of benchmarks that have community members and real estate developers heralding it as an area on the rise. Located a mere 10-minute drive across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill, the area might just be D.C.’s next up-and-coming hood.
Harbingers of growth include the opening earlier this year of the neighborhood’s first full-service restaurant in years, Uniontown Bar and Grill; its first coffee shop, Big Chair Coffee & Grill, in 2010; and a burgeoning art scene that includes Honfleur Gallery and the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, which opened over the course of the past four years. All dot the walkable main corridor at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE.
”When you’re starting from zero, one is a big increase,„ developer Stan Voudrie says of the businesses that are popping up along these roads. His company, Four Points LLC, plans to build mixed-use developments along the stretch. Four Points aims to start construction next fall on a W Street SE condo building and to convert a police warehouse on Shannon Place SE into office space.
For all the new, one of the neighborhood’s biggest strengths is its old, particularly its turn-of-the-century rowhouses, often available on the cheap and as fixer-uppers.
That’s what attracted some of Anacostia’s newest residents, such as K Leszczak, a federal government employee who paid in the mid-$50,000s for a foreclosed 1916 townhouse that she plans to renovate for approximately $100,000. She hopes to move in by early summer.
“When you go to Anacostia, there’s just this sense that you’re in D.C. and you’re close enough to all the action and hustle and bustle,” says Leszczak, 25, “and yet there’s still this greenery, this sense of kindness, and now people caring about what’s happening in the community and how to make it better.”
One of Washington’s most notable historical residences, the former home of Frederick Douglass, sits atop a grassy hill at the center of the neighborhood. The National Historic Site is not only the former living quarters of one of the nation’s greatest abolitionists but also one of many neighborhood spots to offer an awe-inspiring view of the city.
Douglass, who was born into slavery but escaped to become an influential abolitionist, once said, “Without struggle, there would be no progress.” The quote could easily describe Anacostia’s recent history and some residents’ fight to counter negative views of the neighborhood. It’s also a phrase that’s tattooed across the right side of the chest of new Anacostia resident Elijah Black. In March, he purchased a home in the Fairlawn Estates subdivision, which consists of 20 single-family homes on the northern edge of Anacostia. Black, 28, closed on his three-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom property for $365,000.
Across the neighborhood, the Department of Homeland Security, which is spread among 40 buildings in the D.C. area, is consolidating its headquarters at Anacostia’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus (1100 Alabama Ave. SE). Construction is under way to renovate the facility; parts of it are slated for completion by 2013.
Black decided to buy his house after he learned that the DHS was moving into the neighborhood, likely driving up house values. This confluence of factors, he says, is when “the big G word,” or “gentrification,” enters the conversation.
“Whether or not it’s fair, or whether [new residents] are pushing out the poor families,” were thoughts that crossed Black’s mind as he tried to decide whether to buy in Anacostia. “I can see both arguments,” he says.
Butch Hopkins, president and CEO of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, which has promoted development in the neighborhood since 1968, doesn’t worry that Anacostia could lose its character. “You’ll still have the ability to recognize it because you’ll still have the historic district,” he says, adding that with development, Anacostia should “look a lot better.”
The Anacostia Historic District consists of 550 buildings constructed between 1854 and 1930. The area was one of D.C.’s first suburbs, a working-class, white neighborhood called Uniontown that was incorporated in 1854; Congress changed the name to Anacostia in 1886.
The area has always had a substantial residential population. In January, Anacostia welcomed a notable new gathering place for locals, Uniontown Bar and Grill.
“I looked at the market research and it just said that there were 7,000 people who crossed this path every day — foot traffic and car traffic and public transportation,” says Uniontown Bar and Grill owner Natasha Dasher. “The U.S. census states that this is a very high-traffic area, yet it still didn’t have an eating establishment with an alcoholic-beverage license.”
Dasher might get even more passers-by soon; the District Department of Transportation has started construction on an Anacostia streetcar line similar to the one slated for H Street. Service along the tracks, which would include spots along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, is expected to start in the fall of 2012.
“When you hear me say that Anacostia has changed, I mean, having seen this neighborhood five or so years ago, it did feel a little different,” says Johanna Squires, 24, who moved to Anacostia last October to live with her now-fiance. Squires, who works at an HIV prevention organization in Eastern Market, began house-hunting with her fiance in March.
Having been approved for a $130,000 loan, Squires believes Anacostia is a diamond in the rough, one of the few parts of Washington where she can afford a house to accommodate her future husband’s three children. Together with the kids, Squires says, she’s discovering one of the area’s charms: an abundance of ice cream trucks, including her favorite, which serves banana splits.
“If you think there’s snow on the ground and the Anacostia ice cream man isn’t going to come around, you’re wrong,” she says. “It’s awesome.”
It’s just the sort of Anacostia tradition that, like the residential and retail transformations, might be worth waiting for.
Anacostia is roughly bounded by the Anacostia River and Good Hope Road SE to the north, St. Elizabeths Hospital to the south, Alabama Avenue SE to the east and South Capitol Street SE to the west.
The neighborhood is located in the part of Washington with the highest rates of homicide, burglary and aggravated assault, according to 2009 statistics from D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department’s Annual Index of Crime Total.
» Metro: In addition to multiple bus lines, the Anacostia Metro stop (Green Line) serves the neighborhood.
» Zipcar: Anacostia has two locations where vehicles in the car-sharing program can be found.
» Capital Bikeshare: The area has four racks: at the Metro station, at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Good Hope Road SE; at the library; and at Good Hope and Naylor roads SE.
» And Now, Anacostia: This blog offers consistently updated information on neighborhood news and real estate developments. Find it at Anacostianow.com.
» Anacostia — The Web Series: This amusing if overly dramatic online soap opera set in Anacostia was created by D.C. native Anthony Anderson. He describes the show as “along the lines of “Dallas” and “Knots Landing” with a bit of a “Sex and the City” flair.” Find it at Anacostia-thewebseries.com.
» Frederick Douglass National Historic Site: Pictured below, the famed abolitionist’s historic home sits atop a hill with an incredible view of D.C.’s skyline (1411 W St. SE; 202-426-5961, Nps.gov/frdo).
» Anacostia Community Museum: Part of the Smithsonian complex, this museum features African-American history and culture (1901 Fort Place SE; 202-633-4820, Anacostia.si.edu).
» LaThreadz: Anacostia’s best-known boutique clothing store (1345 Good Hope Road SE; 202-610-0006, Lathreadz.com).
» American Shottas: This record store has a good selection of music by local artists (1346 Good Hope Road SE; 202-525-3438).
Notable galleries include Honfleur Gallery (1241 Good Hope Road SE; 202-536-8994, Honfleurgallery.com) and the Gallery at Vivid Solutions (2208 MLK Ave. SE; 202-365-8392, Vividsolutionsdc.com).
» Uniontown Bar and Grill: Pictured above, this is Anacostia’s only full-service restaurant, open since Jan. 31 (2200 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; 202-678-8824, Utowndc.com).
» Big Chair Coffee & Grill: This coffee shop was named for the giant chair that stands across the street as a public art centerpiece (2122 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; 202-525-4287, Bigchaircoffeeshop.com).
» Safeway: One of the few area grocery stores, it’s located at the very edge of the neighborhood (2845 Alabama Ave. SE; 202-575-7525).
» Yes! Organic Market: Technically in the Fairlawn neighborhood, the grocer has generated buzz (2323 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-582-1480).
» Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket: This ’70s-style grocery store is about to undergo a renovation (1918 14th St. SE; 202-678-8056).
Written by Express contributor Becca Milfeld