News & Politics

The Blogger Beat: And Now, Anacostia

We head across the river this week to explore Anacostia with neighborhood blogger David Garber.

Blogger David Garber in the soon-to-be developed Anacostia Square. Photograph by Joseph Allen; Louis Ghost Chair by Philippe Starck, courtesy of Design Within Reach

David Garber moved to Anacostia after a yearlong stint in Manhattan—talk about a change of scenery. He started the blog when he moved to the DC neighborhood because he saw something in it that many people didn’t: potential. “I wanted to give Anacostia a different, more optimistic voice than is usually presented in the media,” he says. “It’s a neighborhood everyone sort of thinks they know about but haven’t actually visited.”

Garber, 25, grew up in Northern Virginia but came to know and love DC early on: As a third-grader, he came to the city on the Metro every week for art lessons on Capitol Hill. He says he loved the “independence, walkability, and charm of city living.”

But his opinion of Anacostia wasn’t quite so positive: “To my friends and me, Anacostia was mostly perceived as a projects-only no-man’s land. People got lost in Anacostia or youth-group service trips painted church basements, but other than that it was a complete unknown.”

Fast-forward a decade. A friend of Garber’s moved to Fairlawn, a neighborhood adjacent to Anacostia, and Garber says the first time he visited, he was enthralled by the area’s architecture and history. Plus, the price of homes was right up his alley. In 2007, Garber bought a place of his own and started his blog, And Now, Anacostia, soon after.

Over the past two years, Garber has become one of Anacostia’s biggest advocates. We caught up with him recently to find out more about what really goes on across the river. Read on to find out why he loves Anacostia and what he thinks needs improving, his favorite local leader and green space, plus a bit of advice for Top Chef contestant Carla Hall.

Why you live in Anacostia:
“I grew up in the Washington area, so I’ve seen a lot of neighborhoods transform from ‘why would you ever go there?’ zones to the latest in hip and with-it urbanism. I mean, if someone told you ten years ago that Bang & Olufsen or a string of white-tablecloth restaurants would open on 14th Street, Northwest, you would’ve called them crazy. Eastern Market has gone from a neighborhood where everyone had a club on their steering wheel to the land of strollers and flip-flops. Every old building in the East End used to be boarded up and windswept. And H Street, Northeast? Are you crazy?

“When I first crossed the bridge into Anacostia a couple years ago, I saw the same potential. Sure, there are challenges: reputation, physical separation. But we have two historic main streets (MLK and Good Hope) with a heck of a lot of promise, a housing stock straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life, and the best views in the city. We still have a ways to go before we’re the ‘it’ spot, but the regeneration vibe over here is alive.”

Three things you love about Anacostia:
“The front-porch culture, our amazing collection of totally unique houses, and the Honfleur Gallery and the energy it brings to Good Hope Road. I don’t make it to every show or opening, but just the fact that a really cool gallery exists in the neighborhood is enough to recharge my batteries if ever I’m feeling down about the progress of change over here.”

Three things that need improvement:
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have a historic district that, at least on paper, protects against the more heinous exterior redos and pop-ups spreading through other parts of DC, but a lot of MLK and Good Hope is outside the District, giving owners free reign to vinylize and tear down. I was raised with the Dickens quote “Trifles make the sum of life,” and for Anacostia that means an incredible attention to detail even on the often-overlooked elements such as sidewalk tree canopies, streetscape design, and retail signage.

“We’re in one of the most accessible neighborhoods thanks to highways, buses, and rail, but if we want the area to become a destination, the parking lots and awkward building placements around Metro need some serious work. I’m a huge transit geek, but I always hesitate to show people the Metro station because it totally misrepresents the neighborhood. First step: a small area plan like the one that was just approved around the Brookland station.

“And—drum roll, please—one of my biggest pet peeves: What’s with calling everything east of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers Anacostia? I try not to get too beat up about it, but when the mainstream media reports on violence anywhere in Wards 7 and 8, they too often give little old Anacostia a bad name by recklessly neighborhood-name dropping. I even heard someone recently call the Benning/H Street area Anacostia solely because of their perceptions of high crime and lack of development. I mean, seriously?”

One thing people would be surprised to learn about Anacostia:
“The historic district is in place to protect the intact boundaries of the original Uniontown, often called the first bedroom suburb of DC. The two ethnic groups not allowed to live in the neighborhood at that time? Black and Irish people. I’ve got some Irish blood, so at least anecdotally, that little bit of history helps to lighten the ‘white guy gentrifying Anacostia’ conversation.”

Shop or business you’d like to see move in:
“The poll on my blog has ‘sit-down restaurant’ winning that question, so I’d absolutely love to see someone take a chance over here. One idea: DC’s Top Chef star, Carla Hall, opening a common-table/catering-kitchen/casual-dining spot in one of our storefronts. She has the funky optimism and love-inspired cuisine Anacostia wants to see more of.”

Empty storefront with the most potential:
“Definitely the ones I’m sitting directly behind in the above picture at the corner of MLK and Good Hope. Owned in part by the same developer who redid all the historic retail across from the Verizon Center and throughout Penn Quarter, the site is the welcome mat to Anacostia from the 11th Street bridges and will be a pretty cool game changer when the economy shapes up and it’s finally redeveloped. Fortunately the façades have to stay because they’re historic, but the plans call for condos and retail above and behind.”

Best and worst nicknames you’ve ever heard for Anacostia:
“Anacostia has got to be one of the coolest neighborhood names out there, but every once in a while I pare down the five syllables to three and just go with ’Costia. And even though I know where they’re coming from when they say it, it still annoys me when people call it a war zone or comment about not wanting to get shot. I heard a gunshot once, so I’m not blind to the problems, but this is also the friendliest neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.”

Local leader who’s done the most for your neighborhood:
“Charles Wilson. He’s the president and cofounder of the Historic Anacostia Block Association, a group started a couple years ago to give voice to the kind of Anacostia a lot of people are excited for. Although he came in a not-so-close second to Marion Barry in last year’s DC Council race, he has the passion to rebrand Anacostia and River East as a legitimate force for progress and success moving forward. Other neighborhood greats are Yavocka Young of Main Street Anacostia and Greta Fuller, the ANC commissioner for Historic Anacostia.”

Local leader you most wish you could fire:
“Ha! I already speak out a little more than some of the local leaders are used to, so I’m gonna have to take a pass on this one. There’s a pretty hefty sense of entitlement ingrained in the local political scene that’s sometimes frustrating to work through, but I’d rather stir the pot and have my opinion get totally shot down than to passively just let the world spin and not say anything at all. Thumper would not be proud.”

Favorite house:
“There’s a fantastic sunshine-yellow house on U Street between 13th and 14th that’s so legit I could easily see some old-fashioned Anacostian rocking away on its wraparound front porch. A close second? Just a few houses down is one of the last remaining Deep South-style shotgun houses in the neighborhood. No wrought-iron-porch po’ boy shop around the corner (yet), but its unassuming proportions provide a good rural southern fix.”

Favorite fixer-upper currently on the market:
“Too many to count, so I’m going commercial for this one. On the corner of Good Hope and 14th is an amazing two-story brick survivor along the oldest commercial corridor east of the Anacostia River. A developer almost bought it last year with plans to demolish it and replace it with a building with all the charm of a nondescript suburban dentist’s office, but we rallied to preserve it and teamed up with the DC Preservation League to designate it for landmark status. The developer ended up dropping out of the contract and it still needs to be fixed up, but the efforts reminded the neighborhood that we’re going to have to fight to get the eclectic/historic/human-scale end result we’re hoping for.”

Best example of historic preservation done right:
“Anacostia is currently a historic-preservation-construction mecca thanks to the amazing Historic Homeowners Grant Program started by the city in 2007. So far, about 60 houses have received grants, all of which go toward exterior restorations. As chainlink fences are replaced with picket and iron, asbestos shingles are stripped to reveal original clapboard, and awnings are removed to reveal porches and windows, the neighborhood has literally transformed overnight.”

Favorite park or green space:
“Frederick Douglass’s hilltop estate, hands down. His house is one of the more elegant and gracious homes in the city, and it sits on a gorgeous green hill with the most stunning views of DC you’ve ever seen. Take a sunny Saturday and check it out because it’ll totally knock your socks off.”

Favorite spot for a drink after work:
“Are you trying to rub it in my face that we don’t have one yet . . . ? Just kidding. I’m a big fan of Capitol Hill, so Hawk ’n’ Dove is pretty high on the list (especially at World Series time). But Barracks Row is literally right across the river from us and has a fast-growing selection of high-class watering holes, including a sweet new Matchbox that completely opens up to the sidewalk in nice weather.”

Favorite neighborhood besides Anacostia:
“Again, Capitol Hill: steps from the halls of power, surrounded by history, all on an amazing urban scale with some of the coolest alleys in town. Church and 14th streets, Northwest, north of Studio Theatre, also satisfies a certain urban crave.”

Favorite neighborhood blog besides your own:
“I’m a fan of Prince of Petworth for its local, discovering-the-details approach, and I’ve been following JDLand (Navy Yard, Ballpark District) since its early days for the development-progress photos and latest news about Anacostia’s just-across-the-river neighbor. For a broader approach to DC regional planning, transportation, and urban-development issues, Greater Greater Washington is my go-to.”

Next week in the Blogger Beat, we talk glitz and glam with Makeda Saggau-Sackey of Glamazon Diaries. Check back on Wednesday for her advice on fashion, beauty, and more.

K Street Kate
Greater Greater Washington
All Blogger Beat interviews

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