Southeast activists gain traction after years of “environmental apartheid”

Woman in car Dolly Davis parked at the CSX-Bening Railroad Yard on 33rd Street SE and immediately noticed a pile of discarded tires to her left. Photo by Mary Kett.

By Mary Kett

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Dolly Davis stepped outside her Fairlawn Avenue residence in the Southeast section of the district. She immediately noticed a pile of discarded tires and two shopping carts.

The unused railroad tracks across the street from her home were overgrown with vegetation and full of trash. Davis, 64, first envisioned a recreational trail in place of the neglected tracks in 1999.

“I believe it’s gonna happen. It may happen after I die, I don’t know,” Davis said. “The point is, after working on this for free for 25 years, we gotta care. Somebody’s gotta do this.”

For more than two decades, Davis has been fighting for the Shepherd’s Branch line to be cleaned and transformed into a community space. CSX Transportation owns the line, which was discontinued in 2002.

The line is a stain on several of the district’s Southeast neighborhoods along the Anacostia River. It has attracted illegal dumping, invasive species and other environmental issues for decades, with the burden of maintaining the space falling primarily on community members.

A portion of the tracks sit across the street from Davis’s Fairlawn Avenue residence in Twining. The space is full of overgrown weeds, shopping carts, old appliances, furniture and bottles. Wards 7 and 8 had the highest rates of illegal dumping in the District in 2022, according to Metropolitan Police Department records.

Davis began asking CSX and the District to better maintain the space and create a recreational trail in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite her then-position as a commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B, she was largely ignored. 

“I got no response from CSX, I got no response from DDOT, I got no response from anybody,” Davis said. “It was completely kicked under the rug.”

As the cleanups gained traction, she partnered with the Anacostia Watershed Society in 2005 and the Anacostia Riverkeeper in 2015. Now, her cleanup events happen three times annually with hundreds of volunteers coming to help. 

Davis said she understands that the government has to find funding for projects such as a recreational trail, but the predominantly Black communities on the east side of the Anacostia River are treated as a last priority. 

“Black folks who live across the river are pushed aside, forgotten and disregarded,” Davis said. 

Patricia Howard-Chittams, a Twining resident and former 7B commissioner, said that discontinued tracks in other areas such as Alexandria, Virginia are significantly better maintained than the Shepherd’s Branch line. 

“It is environmental apartheid,” said Howard-Chittams.

After she received little response from CSX and the local government, Davis decided to take matters into her own hands. In 1998, she organized her first community cleanup in partnership with the Alice Ferguson Foundation. 

“It is environmental apartheid,” said Howard-Chittams.

In October, ANC 7B passed a resolution that calls on the District to acquire the space from CSX and construct a recreational hiking and biking trail. The resolution is a first step in fulfilling Davis’s dream. 

However, Davis and other community members know there is a long road ahead of them, especially because they have witnessed a history of neglect on issues regarding the environment, infrastructure and public safety. 

“There’s a general fatigue,” Howard-Chittams said. “It doesn’t matter what you do or say, the government’s not gonna listen to you. They’re gonna do what they want to do without any input from the people who actually live here.”

Davis and Howard-Chittams pointed to the legacy of longtime Twining resident Joseph Glover as an example of environmental injustice in their community.

Glover complained to the District for nearly three decades about a dilapidated stormwater system in the stream in Pope Branch Park, which was connected to the backyard of his residence on 33rd Street SE. Each time he brought his young daughters out for a walk, they would smell the stench of wastewater, according to Davis.

Joseph Glover’s former residence on the 1200 block of 33rd Street SE. Photo by Mary Kett.

His complaints were ignored for almost 20 years until he met Davis at an ANC meeting in 2000. The two established the Pope Branch Restoration Alliance. Again, the burden fell on community members to fight for environmental safety.

Glover passed away in 2009. The District Department of Energy and Environment completed a restoration project in December 2016, over 30 years after Glover’s initial complaints. 

Davis said she is motivated by the legacy of Glover and a drive to make her community safer.

Davis has helped to organize countless other projects in her community, such as the revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue SE and improved sidewalks, signage, gutters and street lights throughout Twining.

“When you work towards something hard enough and you really believe in it long enough, you’re going to get it,” Davis said. “That’s how I look at life, and that’s what’s going to happen with this trail.”