Where Two Rivers Meet

You make springs gush forth in the valleys: they flow in between the hills.
They give drink to the beasts of the field; the wild-asses quench their thirst.
On their banks dwell the birds of heaven; from the branches they sing their song. -cf. Psalm 104

Reading Scripture at the Georgetown Waterfront earlier this week, this quote got me thinking, looking at DC’s rivers through eyes of faith.  The psalm describes two very different creatures watering themselves at the same river, the wild-asses and the birds of heaven: the humble workers and (literally) the peacocks of the world.  All beloved by the Father, all drawing life from the same place…. perhaps reminding us that we’re not really all that different after all.

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Washington is by no means a maritime city.  Water is by no means our identifying feature.  That said, our city, like many others around the world, lies at the convergence of two rivers, the Anacostia and Potomac.  The founders established the new capital here for several reasons, principal among them, a compromise between northern and southern states, but there were others.  Georgetown (formerly “[King] George’s Town”) was a center of commerce, the last navigable stop on the Potomac.  Placing the city at the joining of the two waterways also made it theoretically defensible… a theory shortly debunked when the British burned the capital during the War of 1812.  DC’s waterfront location also played a major role in design concepts for the city at the turn of the last century.  Some of these plans called for elaborate canal systems where the National Mall currently sits, giving the city Venetian sense.

alternate canal plan for National Mall
alternate canal plan for National Mall
Proposal for future tidal basin development
Proposal for future tidal basin development

As much as water is a unifying factor in civic life it can also be divisive.  Rock Creek, for example, served as a source of drinking/washing water for 19th century DC’s servant class.  To this day you can see many of Georgetown’s simpler, smaller row houses  (once occupied by service workers) closer t the creek, while city mansions occupy higher ground  to the west away from the creek’s mosquitos.  Perhaps the most stark contrast between waters is the reputation of “Potomac Washington” vs. “Anacostia Washington.”

19th c. Rock Creek, somewhat less elegant than we know it today
19th c. Rock Creek at P St, NW – somewhat less elegant than we know it today

For various reasons over the course of time, the Potomac became Washington’s monumental facade, while the more industrialized Anacostia suffered as, literally, a backwater.  To this day, the two rivers remain iconic of two Washington’s: one increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitain, the other plagued by economic stagnation and chronic inner city challenges.

Much ink has been spilt over the need to provide more opportunities for the two rivers to take on more equal footing.  Most recently we read about multi-million dollar plans to “re-develop” the Anacostia waterfront with walking paths, green bridges, ball parks, a new soccer stadium etc.   The reality though is that “economic re-develoment” usually means economic dispossession for the working poor in favor of the well-to-do.  The wild-asses of Psalm 104, beloved of the Father are exiled from his waterfront.

Most of us aren’t in a position to directly influence massive construction projects, but we might all do well to ask some questions: Do I know my neighbors?  Whatever their economic state may be, how do I look on them: as equals in dignity beloved by God? …or otherwise?  When I talk about the development/changing of neighborhoods, do I seek to help my neighbors? …or simply push their problems further away from me?  Regularly wrestling with such questions might help each of us do our part to realize the Psalmists hope for man (and for DC) so that together, all of us can draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.