We are becoming more aware of how important a healthy Anacostia River is to the well-being of this region are taking charge and taking better care of the Anacostia. Locally, in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, ordinary residents—along with more than 50 advocacy groups, governmental agencies, and other stakeholders—are reaching out to neighborhoods and organizing to clean up urban rivers and streams. These communities strive to achieve the goals of swimmable, fishable, and sustainable waterways for their cities and citizens—goals common to urban situations everywhere. To achieve a cleaner and more useful river we have to expect that District and Maryland governments will enact new laws to address stormwater pollution from private properties currently under real estate development.
Restoration efforts on the Anacostia River have been piecemeal so far without a coordinating authority with resources and legal strength to prioritize actions across political boundaries. Many of the river’s toxics (chemicals, poisons, and other pollutants) are “fixed” in the streambed of the Anacostia River as part of the river soil and cannot be easily removed from the river and its waters. The Environmental Protection Agency alone cannot compel cities and companies to clean up “legacy toxics.” Successful cleanup of legacy toxics will require broad-based community efforts and continuing scientific research.
Our exhibition, Reclaiming the Edge- Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement, dealt with issues affecting waterways throughout the world, as well as in our own backyard. The primary themes covered in the exhibition were as follows:\
Issues of densely populated watersheds: The Anacostia River is one of the most densely populated watersheds in the country with major problems arising from upriver communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. The exhibition addressed issues and impacts that have turned rivers from pristine waterways of fresh water into rank sewers creating challenges for public health.
Urban waterways and diverse populations: In our research, we found, rivers often become belts or barriers of racial and ethnic segregation. Pollution and industrial development of riverfronts has historically had a disproportionate negative impact on poor and ethnically diverse populations. The exhibition explored the impacts urban wastershed neglect has had on minority and low income populations.
National rivers and urban development: The exhibition showcased new experiences in city planning and building, specifically in waterfront development along rivers in Pittsburg, Louisville, Los Angeles, London and Shanghai. These cities have all worked to restore their waterfronts as places of congregation and recreation. By using these waterfronts as models, the vision of a rehabilitated Anacostia River then can become a reality.
Development and river ecology: This theme explored human attempts to tame or engineer urban rivers through the mechanisms of state power and planning, risk assessment, and zoning. It also assessed the role the river plays in wildness and an environmental “place” within the urban experience.
Water plays an integral role in our spiritual lives. It serves as a purifier to prepare the worshipper and sacred space for communion with a higher power. It anoints the believer as he prepares for his final journey. For some, water serves as a manifestation of the divine worthy of reverence itself. Despite the varied ways in which we incorporate water into our beliefs and expressions of faith, the common trait shared by various faiths is an instinctual understanding of the sanctity of water and other aspects of the natural world.
As communities face the issues in the growing debates and battles over the definitions and practices of environmentalism, the responsibilities and rights of residents, and the practicalities of creating healthy, sustainable neighborhoods, towns, and cities, the role of faith communities has come into focus.
What is our obligation to the natural word? Do we have dominion, or are we meant to be stewards? How can faith communities who have had a role as the leading moral forces in our communities make their environmental messages blend seamlessly into their moral teachings? Are faith communities an under-tapped source of authority in the efforts to “green” our communities?
The contributors to this issue have taken the teachings of their faiths and used them as a source of authority to participate in the movement for healthier communities, economic and social justice, and the reclamation of a natural world in which residents can find
a source of renewal and pride. For some it requires reigniting a lost reverence for the natural world that has been lost, while others find themselves awakening the members of their faith communities to their roles as caretakers. Regardless of the ways in which faith communities help to lead the fight for environmental protection and change, the possible futures remain the same: global communities in which residents are leading healthy lives.
One of my favorite artists in the ACM collection is Leslie J. Payne. Born in 1907 in rural Northumberland County, Virginia, Payne was a fisherman and a crabber. Payne only received a fourth grade education, and remained impoverished for all of his life. He had few opportunities for travel, to satisfy his curiosity about the world, to put his enormous creative energies to work, or to indulge his larger than life personality. But in 1918, he attended an air show when he was only eleven years old that was to change his life. As a direct result of that event, Payne began a lifelong obsession with airplanes and airfields.
In the 1940s Payne began to construct airplanes, most of them relatively small in scale. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Payne began to construct what he called imitation planes. These were large scale planes, constructed so that Payne and a passenger could sit in the cabin and enjoy the view. On Sunday afternoons, Payne would invite selected young ladies to join him on flights in his planes and they would put-put around the surrounding fields. The young women wore their good Sunday clothes—one recalled wearing white gloves and pearls—and Payne wore a flight suit, aviator cap, and goggles, and outfitted each passenger with helmet and goggles . He maintained a travel log book in which the young women kept notes on each flight’s imaginary itinerary, and also had his passengers take Polaroid photos. On those occasions, for those few hours, Leslie Payne became a pilot, with all the powerful and romantic notions that that suggested in the 1960s. On the back of his flight suit was emblazoned a huge emblem that revealed his self-made identity: Old Airplane Builder. Homemade.
Using metal, canvas, automobile parts, kitchen tools, and other materials that he scrounged, he built imitation planes and then transformed his small farm into an airfield, complete with AIR TOWER, machine shop, and runways. He had no truck, or transportation for the larger pieces of scrap metal, so he carried the stuff back to his farm.
After Leslie Payne retired to a nursing home in the late 1970s, and after his death in 1980, his airfield was abandoned. The planes, tower, and machine shop remained as you see them here until 1987, when Jonathan Green, then director of the California Museum of Photography traveled to Lillian, Virginia, and with the permission of the family, brought back a plane, the air tower, and some of the machine shop. Green’s team spent years restoring the artifacts. In 1994, Green assisted the Anacostia Museum in acquiring the collection, and it remains an important part of the museum’s holdings today.
Let me end with Leslie Payne’s motto that was burned over the doorway of his machine shop: Safety first, Tak No Chance!