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11th Street Bridge Project Inspires Hope At Both Ends

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Kratz and the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park, which is just a series of pilings for now.
WAMU/Jonathan Wilson
Kratz and the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park, which is just a series of pilings for now.

If you like boisterous, heartfelt praise music, the 7:30 a.m. Sunday service at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia might just be the cure for any early morning sluggishness.

Matthews sits just up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from Historic Anacostia, across from the Barry Farm neighborhood. With a congregation of about 2,000 members, it’s one of the largest churches in the area.

“This truly is a family church,” Rev. Donna Freeman, the children’s pastor at Matthews Memorial, says. “No matter whom you talk to, there’s someone here that has a family member that has actually lived in the Barry Farm, so they are attached to the community. Now, they may have moved since then, but their roots are here.”

But that’s the thing: those roots haven’t been strong enough to keep many of Matthews’ loyal congregants from moving to the suburbs. Freeman has soaring hopes, though, that the 11th Street Bridge Park, and all that it promises, could be a tipping point.

Images from the four design proposals for the 11th Street Bridge Park, from top: Balmori Associates/Cooper, Robertson & Partners; OLIN/OMA; Stoss Landscape Urbanism/Höweler + Yoon Architecture; Wallace Roberts & Todd/NEXT Architects. For more views and to vote on the designs, visit bridgepark.org.

“Different things that people want to build a strong family unit have just declined, rapidly,” she says. “The 11th Street Bridge [Park] brings that hope and newness back into the area, along with retail and different things that are going on. So that is tangible hope to everyone.”

The vision

Scott Kratz is the person tasked with making sure tangible hope becomes tangible success.

“What we’re looking at now are the four different piers that were the supports for the old 11th Street bridge that we’re planning on reusing,” he explains, standing on the Anacostia Waterfront in Southeast D.C.

Kratz is executive director of the 11th Street Bridge Park Project, which will use the remains of the retired span over the river as the foundation for a civic space the size of three football fields.

He lives just across the river in the Barracks Row neighborhood and came to the project as a volunteer — merely an interested resident. But soon he realized the idea, hatched with then-D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, was too important to be a hobby.

“The more I looked at the potential for this 11th Street Bridge Park, the more I saw — I can’t think of another project that within that single intervention that can be an anchor for economic development for both sides, can reengage people with the river itself, can connect two different communities that have been divided for so long, and can be a safe place for active recreation,” he says.

(Four design teams will present their proposals to the project's jury on Sept. 29-30 at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE. The event is open to the public. For more information, visit bridgepark.org.)

Overcoming a trust deficit

Kratz also knew that few of those goals could be accomplished without residents and community leaders on both sides of the river buying in to the plan.

“The very first thing we asked was, ‘Is this something that the community wants?’” he says. “Because if not, this is probably not a good use of anybody’s time or effort. And we’ve heard enthusiasm from both sides of the river.”

Enthusiasm can evaporate quickly without trust. And so, three years ago, Kratz began the hard work of building that trust.

He created a design oversight committee that included residents and leaders from both sides of the river, holding more than 300 community meetings over the past three years.

Community activist David Smith is part of the committee. He grew up east of the river himself, in Deanwood, and he says gentrification has been the hottest topic at the meetings from the beginning.

“The talk around gentrification is the number one talk,” Smith says. “I think everyone is starting to realize, first of all, that there are a lot of promises made to [this] community that are never kept.”

Kratz concurs. But that “G-word”? He says the real concern is something much easier to understand.

“Ultimately, that gentrification term is such a loaded term,” Kratz says. “What we’re really concerned about is displacement: How do we make sure that this 11th Street Bridge Park can be a rising tide that lifts boats on both sides of the river?”

Another High Line?

A frequent point of comparison for the 11th Street Bridge Park concept is New York City’s High Line: a linear park built in 2009 on defunct portion of elevated freight-rail track in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“They were the first to turn aging infrastructure into a new civic space,” Kratz says, “so it’s a proof of concept. People can see that that works.”

But the High Line also provided a cautionary tale about gentrification.

Property values around it skyrocketed — and the neighborhood changed so rapidly that working-class residents were priced out and longstanding businesses were hit hard by the changing demographics.

Smith, at Diamond Teague Park on the north side of the Anacostia.

David Smith says though he’s optimistic for D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park, avoiding the High Line scenario will take continued effort and vigilance.

“Will the tidal wave of opportunity be a tsunami to the people in the community and wipe ‘em out?” That is the concern,” he says. “I pray that this interview, I don’t hear it in 10 years and realize, ‘Wow, I knew that it could happen.'”

Kratz says his design oversight committee has come up with ways to make sure the bridge park isn’t merely an engine for displacement.

He says the District should consider tax breaks for local artists and businesses, and setting aside land near the bridge for affordable housing. He hopes to gather ideas into a formalized plan that his committee will present to elected leaders.

“It’d be really easy to just say, ‘We don’t own any land on either side of the bridge park — we’re a nonprofit, this isn’t our problem.’ But ultimately I think that would be irresponsible,” Kratz says. “If one of the driving goals is to connect two otherwise divided communities, by ignoring that, we wouldn’t be true to our mission.”

David Smith says if the 11th Street Bridge Park can do what it promises — beautify the river, empower local residents to build and own businesses where they live — it could help lay to rest the idea that neighborhood revitalization always brings displacement.

It’s a tall order, but Smith, Kratz and the many residents eager to see the bridge park completed clearly think these are problems that the nation’s capital, one of the most educated and wealthy cities in the world, should be able to solve.

Music: "Walking through the Park" by Muddy Waters from Hard Again


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