Shepherd Parkway is one of the largest and most dramatic wooded areas in the District of Columbia. Its 205 acres of federal park land parallel Interstate 295 for two miles with an average width of a quarter of a mile. A steep ridge runs along its full length, inspiring the names of the neighborhoods at its crest: Washington Overlook, Congress Heights, and Bellevue.
Various points within the park offer panoramic views, especially in winter. One can see across 295 to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. In the northern parts, the Nationals Park, Capitol dome, and other landmarks of the Washington skyline are visible across the Potomac. Further south, the towers of National Airport and the George Washington Masonic Temple are clearly visible.
The Town Green
The landscaped area between Malcolm X Avenue and Parkland Place serves as a focal point for the community of Congress Heights, frequented in all seasons by residents, former residents, the homeless and church groups ministering to the needy. Residents have long complained of drug and alcohol use, noise, profanity, fights, and litter in this area of the park.
As federal parkland, law enforcement within the park is the responsibility of U.S. Park Police. However, neighbors report that they do not consistently patrol the area. Some residents feel that lax enforcement has made the park a magnet for behavior that is not tolerated elsewhere. The Shepherd Parkway Committee of the Congress Heights Community Association is working with the Park Police and Metropolitan Police Department to address these concerns.
Every December since the mid-90s, the Congress Heights Community Association has held a ceremonial Christmas tree lighting in the park. A fir tree recently replaced the former Christmas holly, which has been moved to another area of the park.
In April 2011, the Community Association partnered with Casey Trees to plant new cherry, oak and crab apple trees. New picnic tables, benches, and play equipment were installed in October 2011 courtesy of Folger Pratt Construction, one of the contractors working nearby to build the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters on the former St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, which borders the parkway to the north.
An Undervalued Resource
The wooded areas of Shepherd Parkway are among the most neglected in Washington, DC. No trails offer access to the forest, and no signs mark it as a national park. Where the park meets the residential streets, there are few benches or trash cans and no picnic tables or other facilities commonly found on national parkland in the western part of the city.
Shepherd Parkway is home to two American bald eagle nests, some of the only ones in the nation’s capital. The northernmost portion of the park, near Mellon Street, was featured in a 2009 Washington Post article: “Every January for eight years, the eagles have returned to their gargantuan homestead to spend six months raising their chicks near the top of an 80-foot red oak. At four feet deep and nearly as wide, the nest is big enough for a man to stand in. It looks like a brown Volkswagen Bug dropped from the heavens and landed upside down in a tree.”
Another nest is located in the far southern part of Shepherd Parkway, near DC Village and the appropriately named Bald Eagle Recreation Center.
Also contained within the boundaries of Shepherd Parkway are the earth-work remains of Fort Carroll (just north of where Martin Luther King Avenue and South Capitol Streets cross), and Fort Greble (at Elmira Street SW). Both were constructed during the Civil War as part of a larger ring of forts encircling the city. In conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the National Park Service has recently added signs identifying the forts from the street. To see the remains of Fort Carrol, however, one must bush-whack, often through thick undergrowth. Fort Greble is visible at the south end of the recreation center of the same name. In short, the natural and historical resources of the park are inaccessible to all but bravest and the most determined explorers.
The park is home to many large old-growth trees including oak, poplar, maple, beech, hickory and holly. Many of these trees are between 100 and 200 years old. The Maryland Native Plant Society has identified several species in the parkway that are known to exist nowhere else in the District of Columbia.
In many areas, however, invasive species, especially English Ivy and Kudzu, are slowly overwhelming and killing the trees.
The Threat of the Bulldozer
Despite its unique natural and historical resources, the General Service Administration, the agency responsible for the Department of Homeland Security project, has taken control of approximately 10 acres of Shepherd Parkway between Malcolm X Avenue and the St. Elizabeths campus for the construction of a new ramp from 295 onto the campus. The National Park Service opposed the land transfer but was overruled.
For many years, Shepherd Park has fallen victim to widespread illegal dumping. Along much of the east edge of the park, where it abuts neighborhood streets and alleys, all manner of junk has been thrown into the woods. Items removed from the area along Lebaum and 4th Streets in recent months include:
refrigerators, propane tanks, ovens, kitchen counters, dishwashers, sinks, toilets, air conditioners, mattresses, tar shingles, drywall, doors, cinder blocks, cans of paint, couches rugs, bicycles, bowling balls motorcycles, shopping carts, car parts, dozens of basketballs, thousands of tires, thousands of dirty diapers, and many thousands of bottles, cans, wrappers, and bags.
How has this national park in the nation’s capital been allowed to remain an open-air dump for decades? The answer, as with so many things in Washington, comes down to race and class.
Would-be dumpers see Ward 8 as a place where they can get away with it because police, preoccupied with violent crime or jaded by the pathologies of the area, blow off reports of illegal dumping.
The National Park Service is responsible for thousands of acres of parkland in the DC area, including major tourist attractions like the National Mall and Ford’s Theater, major roads in the parkways system, all of the city’s squares and circles, and heavily used areas like Rock Creek Park. Shepherd Parkway is comparatively invisible to tourists and high-profile visitors.
Despite the dedication of NPS staff who work East of the River, budget decisions made at the national and regional level have left parks in that part of the city under-resourced.
In the western part of the city, middle and upper-class residents, armed with education, social capital, and political connections, have fought successfully to protect and enhance their parks. Ward 8 residents, meanwhile, have been engaged in a struggle for survival as unemployment soars and rents rise. The minority who are politically active have often found their demands ignored by a political system where money talks.
Who’s doing the dumping in Shepherd Parkway, and why? Low-income communities all over the world have trouble disposing of garbage, and it has less to do with public attitudes than government policies. If you live in a neighborhood with abundant trash cans and regular trash collection, there’s little need to litter or dump. In east DC neighborhoods, however, trash collection, particularly collection of large items, was extremely unreliable for many years. Longtime residents tell of waiting months to have old refrigerators picked up.
In desperation, some resorted to throwing their unwanted items down the wooded hills. The many homeless don’t have anywhere but the woods to drink beer, or to dispose of the bottles when they are done.
In short, the sorry state of Shepherd Parkway is a near- classic example of environmental racism. While Ward 3 has the National Cathedral, American University, and well-manicured woodland trails, Ward 8 has the car impoundment lot, the water treatment plant, and a forest full of garbage.
All of these came to be because those in power figured that Ward 8 residents either didn’t care or lacked the power to do anything about it. While the scourge of illegal dumping may seem to some like a self-inflicted wound by War 8 residents, it is, on a deeper level, the result of societal racism, inequality, and neglect.
Time To Make a Change
Enough is enough. Ward 8 residents deserve good parkland just as much as residents of others areas. A cleaner park will be good for trees, animals, rivers, and human health.
Starting in 2011, the Congress Heights Community Association is partnering with National Capitol Parks-East, the Anacostia Coordinating Council, DC Councilmembers and their staff, Washington Parks and People, the Anacostia Watershed Society, and other community and environmental groups to re-connect people to the land and restore the natural beauty of the park. The long-term goal is to create a hiking trail that runs the full length of the park.
The restoration and enhancement of Shepherd Parkway to the same condition as other national parks in Washington is both environmentally necessary and a requirement of social justice.