Life on the River: The Anacostia’s Hero

He helped found and then led Groundwork Anacostia River DC.

Dennis Chestnut. Photograph by Evy Mages

When Dennis Chestnut was growing up in Northeast DC’s Hillbrook in the 1950s and ’60s, reaching the closest swimming pool, in Anacostia Park, meant traveling through white neighborhoods where he and his friends didn’t always feel welcome. So on hot summer days, they jumped into Watts Branch stream where it meets the Anacostia River.

“I learned how to swim there. We treated it like our beach,” says Chestnut, 71. “The Anacostia has been near and dear to me ever since.”

It was legal to swim then in DC waterways—it’s not now. “We didn’t notice any trash,” he says. “It was pretty clean.”

After college, Chestnut came home to start a family and a career as a master carpenter. “When my children began to get old enough, they wanted to go to the same stream where I used to play,” he recalls. “I went with them, and I noticed that it was not in the same condition. It was trashed. My children were ready to play in it, and I couldn’t let them. That was in the mid-to-late ’70s. That’s when my stewardship light bulb went off.”

Chestnut volunteered for river cleanups, tree plantings, and other activities to better the watershed. Eventually, he helped found and then led Groundwork Anacostia River DC, part of a national non-profit focusing on environmental restoration and community development. In 2019, he was named a National River Hero by the River Network.

He now lives in the house where he grew up and occasionally walks to his old swimming hole, picking up any trash.

“The river is looking a lot better,” Chestnut says. “We are close to being able to swim in it on a regular basis—I would say within the next five to six years. They were originally talking about 2032, and I said, ‘At that rate, I won’t get a chance to go in.’ But five to six years isn’t far off.”

This article initially appeared in our September, 2020 issue. To view the entire guide to the Potomac, click here.

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Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.