The photo above shows the entrance to Kingman Island.
In a nondescript parking lot in the shadow of RFK Stadium, sits the entrance to Kingman Island. Metrorail trains on an elevated stretch of track go buzzing by every five minutes or so.
After leaving that parking lot and crossing a wooden footbridge onto the island itself, the juxtaposition is striking. The sounds of rumbling trains are replaced by chirping birds. And while the island and park provide a rare piece of green space in an otherwise urban environment, it's anything but a natural wonder.
"[Kingman Island] was built in 1917 as part of a public health project to try to alleviate some mud banks along the Anacostia [River] that were causing the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases around the area," says Matt Boyer, director of operations for Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, the non-profit organization that manages the island.
In the past few years, Living Classrooms and other organizations have helped transform the once-neglected island into a nature park and recreation area. And although the land is actively used for hands-on education sessions, convincing people to visit the new park with regularity has proven difficult. Three years ago, one of the Kingman's biggest advocates, D.C. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, hatched a plot to change that.
"I thought that the way to get more people really to take more ownership for cleaning up the river would be to kind of change the paradigm of how people view the Anacostia River," remembers Wells. "So I thought 'Why not a bluegrass festival?'"
Wells had his fair share of skeptics. "It seemed really kind of incongruent," he says. "Generally when people say Anacostia, they don't think bluegrass festival."
But the councilmember was undeterred. "I had been to some bluegrass festivals over the years and saw that they're held in the countryside in interesting natural areas," recalls the lifelong bluegrass fan. "Kingman Island, I thought, really could be one of those areas."
So Wells went about creating the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival. He had the perfect venue, but he needed musicians and a crowd. Surprisingly, he found that many of them were already gathering weekly in Ward 6.
"We discovered that the SOVA coffee shop on H Street opened a second floor wine bar, and they were having a lot of trouble getting customers," says Wells. "So, some people approached them and they said 'Hey what if we played bluegrass up here on Thursday nights? Would you be open to that?'"
SOVA owner Frank Hankins says Thursday night bluegrass is now his most consistent weekly event.
"It's blossomed over the last three and half to four years," boasts a visibly proud Hankins. "Every single Thursday we get a very good crowd."
One of Hankins' Thursday night regulars is Daniel Conner, deputy committee director for Councilmember Wells and the organizer of The Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival. Conner has successfully used the venue as a base to get the word out about the island and the fledgling festival.
"[The festival] started out with 500 people, then last year we went to 1,500, and this year we're looking for 3,000 plus people to be out on the island," says Conner. "With the thriving bluegrass community here in D.C., we see it as a way to lure people out to the Anacostia River and Kingman Island."
And if everything goes according to Conner's plan, those 3,000 people will see something more than just a good show.
The Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival is Saturday, April 28, from 1 to 8 p.m. Proceeds from the event go to Living Classrooms.
[Music: "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by Karaoke from Sing Lost Classics]
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