by Paul Pearlstein
Forest Hills neighbor Paul Pearlstein has been a “river rat” since 1953, when he joined Washington-Lee High School’s rowing team. When he’s not on the river, he’s practicing law part-time or leading tours at the Smithsonian American History Museum. In this piece, he describes how he and other like-minded volunteers founded a rowing community on the Anacostia River.
Since both sides of our local rivers are owned and managed by the National Park Service (NPS), some form of authority was needed to begin using any of the land adjacent to the water. The NPS ranger of National Capital Parks–East disallowed the use of the Anacostia Park with its easy access to the water. Furthermore, the ranger would not agree to the use of any other site with access to the river. Understanding the NPS desire to always say “no” to anything involving the river and its banks, we decided to stop begging and just planted our flag under the 11th street Bridge. A narrow sidewalk from Water Street, SE, between the bridge and the Navy Yard, provided access to the Anacostia.
Bob immediately began to scrounge docks and ramps from the local marinas as well as Potomac Boat Club. He collected old racing shells from local colleges, rowing clubs and the Naval Academy. He even liberated a rowing barge from Cornell and had it delivered. The boats were initially stored in a huge dungeonesque room under the western abutment of the 11th Street Bridge.
While our objective was to introduce rowing to the Anacostia High School students, we were unable to get any to participate. We then reached out to the public middle schools in the area, Johnson and Kramer. By enlisting several experienced rowers to volunteer as coaches, there were youngsters rowing on the river by 1989. The students often had to be picked up because they were too young to drive and getting home could be dicey. One of our young students was shot several times by some gang members on his walk home after a practice. He survived and the rowing continued.
As the years passed the word went out that the Anacostia River was a wonderful and welcoming venue for rowing and paddling. In 1995 Capital Rowing Club (CRC) left Thompson’s Boat House and moved to our facility. CRC brought with it an army of rowers and a terrific willingness to perform the many voluntary tasks necessary to help build and run the facility. In 2001 The National Capital Area Women’s Paddling Association (NCAWAPA or NCA) left the Washington Canoe Club and joined our site with great enthusiasm and a commitment to volunteerism.
Soon other entities began to use this public community facility. Over time, the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association (ACBA) was created as an umbrella organization for the groups that were using the site. The ACBA members include: OARS, CRC, NCA, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), American University, DC Strokes, Gonzaga College High School, Wakefield High School and Bishop Ireton High School. Several local schools that use the facility are not members, but they are sponsored by and row under one of the member clubs. Concerted efforts were made to involve DC public schools but so far only a few charter schools have chosen to participate.
Today we have racing shells, outrigger canoes, dragon boats and kayaks using the river daily. Hundreds of young and old people (I am 74) use the facility, and there is an active program for handicapped civilian and military personnel. It is still a thrill and an inspiration to watch a participant move from a wheel chair on the dock into a racing shell (with pontoons added for stability).
A few years ago the city was required to replace the 11th Street Bridge. It was clear that our facility would have to move since the new bridge was to be built on the same site and the old bridge and all of “our” buildings were to be torn down. After extensive negotiations with the DC Government and with special help from Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, a new site was located up-river below the railroad bridge and the Seafarers Yacht Club. Temporary Quonset hut-style buildings to house the boats were constructed along with mobile toilets and showering facilities.
The new location has become an even better site and there has been significant assistance and support from the Skanska Company that is building the new 11th Street bridge. Unfortunately our structure is only temporary, with a canvas/vinyl exterior. Our lease with the city requires us to build permanent buildings as soon as possible. We anticipate a cost in excess of $10 million. That is a huge number but just one more problem to be solved by ACBA members, friends, and we hope, “the kindness of strangers.”
Perhaps the most impressive quality of the project is that ACBA is administered entirely by member volunteers. Of course there is self-interest involved, but each member organization is required to perform community service at least twice a year. This takes the form of free Learn to Row Days; free youth rowing and paddling events; free outrigger instruction and novice outrigger paddling every Monday night, open house appreciation events for the community and our permanent commitment to the handicapped rowing program for civilians and our wounded warriors.
ACBA is not as old as the Potomac Boat Club (1869) but we expect it to continue for many centuries to come. Everyone is welcome and urged to visit the site, get out on the water or just stroll about and enjoy a truly wonderful experience at DC’s “other” river.