Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River (A book review)


Recent homicides in Southwest Washington D.C.; Source: Washington Post

This recent article on the spike of violence in Southeast Washington D.C. made me think of the book I recently read, Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River. The book chronologically depicts the emergence of Washington D.C. and how power politics and irresponsible urban planning can create disparities among populations in the same locality. Below is my attempt at the book review.

Urbanization, population growth, and the “demographic transition from rural to urban, is associated with shifts from an agriculture-based economy to one of mass industry, technology, and service.”[1] For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this proportion continues to grow. Cities around the world are having a difficult time coping with the influx of people arriving every day and governments are struggling to provide even the most fundamental services, such as access to clean water and adequate sanitation to their urban populations. As we are rethinking the way we live, John R. Wennersten’s Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River, echoes its story of urban development spanning through the past and present and into the future. It is a warning of how misguided urban efforts and policies can lead to a degradation of both the natural and the social environment and how grandiose and exclusive plans for our cities can brand people and the environment for generations to come.

Anacostia is first and foremost a historical overview of Washington D.C. and its surrounding areas. It is a study of environmental and social relations that have shaped the natural and human environments. It is often a story of degradation, of the ruined environment, and of the river’s relationship to the capital and the disenfranchised communities that live and have lived on its shores.[2] Throughout the pages, the author successfully juxtaposes the promise of development and progress with the realities of social deterioration, squalor, and urban decay. In the middle runs the river, the ever silent observer who endures the impact of forces shaping the world around it.

The book is a chronologically constructed narrative. The chapters build on one another and their stories are by no means isolated ones. While focused on a specific case study, the narrative could easily depict most cities around the world today.

The book starts with the arrival of the settlers and their immediate impact on the environment, which quickly becomes strained. The days of plantation culture and its ability to alter the regional’s natural cycles through extraction and human misery (slavery), significantly changed the regional social ecology and deteriorated the natural environment. The author’s initial description of the early plantation culture offers us a paradigm for understanding the subsequent history of the river’s area and its rippling effects into the present day: “linked transformations in environment and social processes created unsettled, contradictory, and unjust relations between the people and the natural and built environment (p 35).”

The narrative then moves from plantations to the grand dreams and schemes of L’Enfant, the crafty world of land speculators, and subsequently towards total urban squalor. War, disease, refugees and reconstruction descend upon the city. Anacostia River became caught up in the matrix of urban development and human misery.

Industrialization springs the expansion of the city and introduces new lessons and warnings for present day developers. The industrial revolution brought with it a two tier development process, increasing the problems of environmental degradation and social split. As the city developed, the wealthier citizens moved one way, while the poorer moved the other. Delivery of basic services followed the split. When inequalities between the two finally came into the public limelight, the leaders responded by re-designing the environment in a way which only exaggerated the social differences. The so-called Monumentalist period is a striking lesson in irresponsible urban design. It completely disconnected the citizens and vitality of their communities from urban planning. One can see the legacy of the Monumentalist period in the center of Washington D.C.: “an area of monumental buildings and plazas that in design and execution contradict the very idea of revitalized communities and flourishing neighborhoods (p 141).” Prestige, appearances, business, and profits drove the forceful removal of the working class populations from certain parts of the city, replacing them with an authoritative design of the public space. The city became a “grotesque paradox” of city planning with poor and disenfranchised people living separate from the wealthy (p 160). The Anacostia River was again set as a boundary.

The promise of the American Dream was literally cut in half due to urban planning and power politics; as well as physically by the river. Environmental justice, as a new civil rights battleground, emerged out of necessity in Washington D.C. The location of one’s birthplace determined one’s future (and as we see from the article in Washington Post to some extent it still does). The river once again takes the center stage in the struggle as people realize that their socio-economic situation is tied to the fate of the river and the environment. Activists believe that a cleaner river and healthier environment could lead to improved communities, and that the river should be seen as an asset, a connecting factor, and not as a barrier to civic improvement.

Later in the book, the author introduces an interesting observation about the unique position and identity of the capital city. Washington D.C. is an artificially constructed city. The fact that Washington never had a well organized political community; that it was regarded as nothing more than an arena for politics; that it had and has a vast transient community; and that the majority of its local population are poor minorities, poses diverse and significant challenges even today, when the city tries to reinvent itself.

Today the river stands changed and with it the city. Waterfronts, new urbanities, and gentrification (or the fear of it) are the new urban realities of Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas. Today, between 70 and 80 percent of the entire Anacostia River watershed is developed.

The author ends his book with currents of hope and an “Anacostia prayer” but he doesn’t offer us solace. While the grand schemes of Washington D.C. might not have died yet, and perhaps even the urban watersheds can still be restored and communities revitalized many questions about the future remain unanswered.

From Anacostia in Washington D.C. to Mathare and Kibera in Nairobi, certain populations remain excluded from the grand developments of their city. When we conducted a survey in Nairobi’s slums, asking people what the biggest problems of their city were, they replied: “Population growth, inequality, the illegal construction of infrastructure, and the degradation of the natural and social environments. Locally, the environmental problems range from lack of dumping sites, lack of drainage systems, deforestation, and the use of rivers as dumping sites and toilet outlets.”[3] The social problems run much deeper. The story of today’s Nairobi is the story of past and present Anacostia. It is the story that many cities in the developing and the developed world are currently experiencing. In the end, Anacostia tells us that there is still hope but only if we radically change the way we live. Can we? Will we?

John R. Wennersten: Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River

[1] World Health Organization, Accessed:

[2] Chesapeake Quarterly, Accessed:

[3] Mapping: (No) Big Deal,


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