Opinion: On Redistricting and Southwest

"Southwest Cannot and Must Not be Split Up," Says 6D Commissioner  

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Buzzard Point and surroundings, 1901. This detail from a panorama published by John L. Trout shows Buzzard Point divided by the James Creek Canal into a western side, with the Arsenal (Fort McNair) and Southwest waterfront, and an eastern side, green and thinly populated south of P Street. Image: Library of Congress

I have lived in Southwest since 1975. In that time, I have made several false starts to move somewhere else, but Southwest always drew me back. Southwest is unique—an oasis of demographic diversity and DC living history. Whatever happens in redistricting, Southwest cannot and must not be split up.

I have served on the Board of the Near Southeast/Southwest Community Benefits Coordinating Council (CBCC), a 501(c) (3) whose mission is to garner benefits to the Southwest community in the context of redevelopment, specifically to maintain Southwest’s unique social diversity. I am currently ANC Commissioner for ANC 6D05, which covers multiple housing complexes from I St. south—to and including all of Buzzard Point.

I see daily how the residents of this large swath of real estate, despite explosive redevelopment bringing many new members into this community, still identify as belonging to this extremely vibrant and cohesive community. In recent years I have also taught Urban Policy in several public policy graduate programs and am acutely aware of what makes a neighborhood and what can destroy one.

Each of these roles has given me a different lens from which to understand the Southwest community, how it functions, and how that relates to redistricting for our neighborhood and community.

First, Southwest has always been one neighborhood, with one of the strongest identities as any I have seen. The community is diverse across race, age, gay, straight, singles, couples and families, and stably racially integrated since the last redevelopment in the 1960s, in a city increasingly challenged to maintain demographic balance in the face of rapid growth and gentrification. The community’s own commitment to diversity is memorialized in the Southwest Small Area Plan, which recognizes that unique character and calls for it to remain an “exemplar of diversity and inclusion.”

Part of that diversity derives from the time of the 60s rebirth, when new transplants chose to move to the New Southwest specifically because it was racially and economically integrated. While the 60s redevelopment was a story of horrendous displacement for over 23,000 families, largely African-American and port-of-entry Jews and other European immigrants, it is also a story of Phoenix rising from the ashes.

For a relatively small community, that beginning laid a foundation for an extraordinary set of community institutions, religious, secular, social and cultural organizations, which survives and expands today to maintain the sense of community and commitment to diversity. The list includes the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), CBCC, SW Action, SW Community Garden, SW Community Foundation, Waterfront Village (to facilitate aging in place), several Friends groups (SW Public Library, Titanic Memorial, Duck Pond, SW Friends) that augment City efforts to maintain our public facilities.

Its churches operate robust feeding, tutoring, workforce development, tech support, youth support, scholarship, health and wellness, renowned blues and jazz, and civic engagement programs that bolster the community connections across racial and economic divides. And perhaps unique in the District, the SW BID has undertaken initiatives including food distribution and beautification in the low-income residential areas, outside of its normal commercial purview.

Importantly, in a city attempting to serve the objectives of racial equity—especially in the current challenge of redistricting, Southwest’s diversity is not just a numbers count. Our residential complexes, our social institutions, and our personal relationships, despite the pressure of gentrification, reflect real social integration across race and economic status—a phenomenon rare in communities around the country.

Amidon-Bowen Elementary is flourishing with increasing numbers of new families enrolling along with children from public housing who mostly attended Anthony Bowen before the two schools merged. This gives all our local children daily interaction and familiarity with a wide range of experiences, and embedding in them understanding and respect that can best be learned only by direct experience.

Second, the geography of Southwest creates natural borders as one community from Independence Avenue south through Buzzard Point.

Most traffic moves north/south to Buzzard Point, bordered by the two rivers with only two ways in and out. The “spine” according to the Buzzard Point Framework, is 2nd St. The other is Potomac Avenue, which leads only from So. Capitol St. to Audi Stadium. Thus, what happens in Buzzard Point affects all of the rest of Southwest.

To illustrate, Audi Stadium, in part because the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) between DC United and CBCC that has fostered a close working relationship, is now a SW community institution, with residents and local nonprofits using it for a variety of functions.

But it also creates challenges that the rest of community must manage. When the stadium hosts events, most pedestrian and vehicular traffic comes from the north either by car or on foot from the Waterfront Metro, through the residential complexes south of M St., often snarling traffic, adding trash—and requiring additional help from DDOT, MPD and our own SW BID. The BID has played a unique role by cruising the neighborhood to scout trouble or needs for help, handing out masks, helping direct traffic.

The two rivers that border us operate of a piece, and the increase in recreational uses and other water traffic since the development of The Wharf only heighten interdependency. As I testified to the Council for CBCC and in coordination with SWNA’s Waterways Task Force, the District Waterways Management Act of 2019 was essential to create coordinated management of the Anacostia watershed and Washington Channel.

As redevelopment continues in Near Southwest and Buzzard Point and public authority is ceded to private developers, safe river activities for residents, visitors, boaters and liveaboards becomes increasingly critical for the life and health of the rivers and those who live alongside.   

On Independence Avenue, the north border of Southwest, buildings in the federal enclave are being redeveloped, several as residences (e.g., Cotton Annex, Reporter’s Building). Those new residents will shop and recreate in Southwest, as others north of M have, lest they be orphaned to nowhere to call home.

Finally, Old Southwest, historic home of working-class African Americans who moved north to support the expansion of the District from the late 18th century forward, deserves recognition and preservation. We recently succeeded in reshaping a very large project to preserve some of the oldest houses in SW, and to integrate features of the new project to recognize and resonate with its surrounding neighbors.

Those collaborations, which have created sensitivity and awareness of the community in which the developers are working, need to be nurtured for the good of our community and the good of the city.

Southwest cannot and must not be split up.  

Fredrica “Rikki” Kramer has lived in Southwest since 1975. Currently Commissioner for ANC 6D05, she can be reached at [email protected].