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Interview: Anacostia Resident Charles Wilson on the SE D.C. Neighborhood’s Charm and Future

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Wilson, a 10-year Anacostia resident, shares his thoughts on the past and future of the Southeast neighborhood

Anacostia is not just another neighborhood in Washington, D.C. It is active and engaged, and part of this is due to a resident known as Charles Wilson. Since he moved to Anacostia 10 years ago, Wilson has worked to fight for the historic character and charm in the neighborhood.

In the effort to improve Anacostia, Wilson co-founded the Historic Anacostia Block Association as a way for residents to join together and discuss ways to improve the community. He also co-founded the River East Emerging Leaders as a way for young professionals to become active and involved in the community.

For the city, he serves as a member of the of the Historic Preservation Review Board as well as a former chief of staff to D.C. Council member Anita Bonds. Through his work with the Department of Small and Local Business Development, Wilson also helps connect small business in D.C. with procurement opportunities offered by the District government or the private sector.

Wilson was able to spare a few moments to speak with Curbed about the neighborhood and how he’s seen it change since he moved in.

How long have you lived in Anacostia?

It’ll be 10 years in August. I moved to the city back in 2003. Believe it or not, my mom suggested I move to Anacostia back in 2002 or 2003 when I was looking for a house, and I told my realtor that I wanted to go to this place called Anacostia, and she told me, "I’m not taking you over there. There’s too much crime. It’s dirty. People are crazy. It’s not a place where you want to be."

So, instead she showed me a house in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast, and that’s where I lived for three years. However, in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn more about this place called Anacostia.

One day, I just went over there by myself. I was driving down Good Hope Road at the time, and I thought, "Wow, I need to be here. This is where I need to be," and I was ever motivated to move to Anacostia.

What was it about Anacostia that you fell so in love with?

I fell in love with the charm of the neighborhood and the historic character of the neighborhood. That’s what immediately drew me there … but because I lived in Trinidad, I understood how important it was for a neighborhood to be close to a commercial corridor like H Street, and Anacostia was bordered by two commercial corridors, Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road. I saw the potential.

What do you think the neighborhood is most known for?

It’s funny. It depends on if you’re asking what it’s known for from the people who live there or from the people who don’t live there. The people who don’t live there don’t know Anacostia. They know what they read in the newspapers about the crimes, the statistics, and just the perception of the neighborhood. The people who live there know it best for the small town feel of the neighborhood, and that’s one of those challenges that we continue to face.

What is the vision of this neighborhood? Is it going to be built up like a Shaw/U Street area or is it going to mimic more of an Old Town Alexandria/Palisades feel where you have that charm and the small town feel at the same time.

Since you’ve been in the area for so long, how have you seen Anacostia change?

Anacostia is starting to get a lot more attention than it was when I was there. You’re starting to see more new people move in, which helps with diversity. Many of the long-time residents are fixing up the facades of their homes through the Historic Housing Grant Program that the city offers. You are also starting to hear more about upcoming development.

I think if the proper vision is put in place, it will be one of those special neighborhoods in the city versus just another neighborhood.

Are there any issues in the neighborhood that you hope to tackle?

Yes, there are two issues, and they’re on different spectrums. One is about future development of this neighborhood because there’s this tug of war between the people who live and know the neighborhood versus the government, and the government is like, "Just build. Build as high as you want, as big as you want, all that you want." Whereas the neighborhood says, "We want development, but we want it to respect the historic character and charm of the existing neighborhood."

I and many of my neighbors are firm believers that not every area of the city is supposed to be built up the same way. Anacostia is a unique neighborhood. It’s unique from many of the neighborhoods in D.C., and that uniqueness should be respected because we want to be a thriving neighborhood, but we want it done in the right way.

The other issue is of course public safety. Anacostia still has a public safety issue, and we want to be able to address that so people can come home and feel safe in their own community.

What do you see for the future of Anacostia?

Anacostia has a bright future, a bright, bright, bright future. I think if the proper vision is put in place, it will be one of those special neighborhoods in the city versus just another neighborhood.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

All Anacostia Week coverage [Curbed DC]