Anacostia: Getting Back to the Garden

By Kathryn Pyle
Washington, DC (April 23, 2009)- “This area used to be covered with blossoms from all the trees,” said Diane Fleming, tree planting volunteer, longtime Anacostia resident, Anacostia Garden Association activist, and Casey Tree board member. “Look at it now!” Lamenting, she gestured up and down the mostly treeless streets.


But that could change. Ms. Fleming was one of a few dozen tree planters that had gathered last Saturday in Anacostia, the largely African-American, largely poor area across the river from Capitol Hill. The mixed crowd (white, black, very young to old, neighborhood residents, and non-) was preparing to plant trees on the 1500 blocks of U Street and V Street, SE, to benefit a group of homeowners, the first planting in this particular area of small houses. The Historic Anacostia Block Association had organized the planting on what turned out to be a glorious spring day.
For Ora Coleman, one of fifteen neighbors who had signed up for a “Casey tree,” it was a glorious day. “I’m getting a lilac, a big one,” she said, as she beamed at the group of planters laboring over a large hole in her back yard. “I’ve planted them before but they were too small to survive. This one” — she presented the ten-foot tall tree lying on its side- “this one will live.”
Thirty-one trees were planted that day: black gums, magnolias, Yoshino cherry, maple, oaks, London plane, and a redbud in addition to two lilacs. The residents got to choose from a list that Casey Trees offers. “Today’s trees are all on private property,” observed Casey Trees director Mark Busciano. “We plant anywhere. And we monitor the trees over two years after planting to make sure the owners are giving them the care they agreed to.”
“We get a lot of requests for tree plantings from middle- and upper-income neighborhoods- mainly the northwest,” said Jared Powell, Director of Communications at Casey Trees. “But the tree inventory shows there are many fewer trees in the southeast and northeast quadrants of the city, where the neighborhoods are lower income, like here in Anacostia. We want to plant here, but we’re limited to requests.”
“We’re thinking about how to raise our profile among folks in the northeast and southeast,” said Sue Erhardt, Director of Education. “One idea is to move some of our tree care workshops out into the community.” Erhardt said one positive trend is that a third of Casey Trees plantings are at public schools, where the organization works closely with teachers and students; the plantings were recently approved as a curriculum activity. The schools are a good link to low-income neighborhoods but more outreach is needed.
For residents of Anacostia, where youths struggle for a decent education and jobs, and the high D.C. homicide rate is averaged up, trees mean more than just beauty and shade. As many people know, in addition to filtering out pollutants, thereby reducing asthma and other lung disorders, trees help cool streets and homes and help control storm water runoff. They contribute to the economy in more direct ways as well: trees add to the value of a property; people are more likely to shop where there are trees; and employment related to the urban canopy, including many entry-level jobs and specialized “green jobs,” is increasing.
It also appears that trees deter crime, according to a study conducted in a low-income housing complex in Chicago; the greener a building’s surrounding, the fewer crimes of all kinds. People are more likely to be outside if there are trees on their block, and that deters break-ins and vandalism and, according to the “broken window” theory of urban blight, may contribute to dissuading would-be criminals from committing other crimes. Claims that trees promote civility among neighbors, raise self-esteem among children, and instill a sense of community are hard to prove but seem like, well, common sense.
Does Anacostia’s committed gardener Diane Fleming think trees deter crime? “Living around trees and flowers is pleasant, it makes you feel good,” she says. “That’s something. And I think that gardening is a way for these young adults to be involved in the community, to care about something other than their new jeans! You saw the little children out here today helping, but not the older ones. They’re the ones we have to include.”
That sentiment was echoed by the man who ran after us as we were leaving at the end of the half-day planting. “Damn,” he exclaimed. “The tree planting, is it over? I had to take my folks to the doctor this morning but, listen, it’s not enough that you all come out and do this; we gotta get the kids working with you; it has to start here.”
Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. This is the second installment in a four-part series that explores the growing movement to recover and maintain the urban canopy. In part one, she wrote about Washington, D.C.’s love affair with its trees.
Related Resources:
PhilanTopic- Anacostia: Getting Back to the Garden
Casey Trees