February 12, 2018

Creating a sense of belonging in a rapidly changing D.C. neighborhood

The 11th Street Bridge Park Cultural Equity Project takes a people-first approach to honor the identity and culture of its community

Community members and stakeholders in D.C.'s historic Anacostia neighborhood come together to discuss the development of the 11th Street Bridge Park. Photo by Becky Harlan

The 11th Street Bridge Park will become the District of Columbia’s first elevated park, connecting the historic Anacostia and Capitol Hill neighborhoods that are geographically divided by the Anacostia River. Over the past two years, the project has become more than a park—we’ve expanded our work to include an equal investment in the neighborhood as the cost to build the park so that all residents have the opportunity to benefit from this civic space.

When Bridge Park staff, residents, and community partners began working on the framework for this neighborhood investment—now known as our Equitable Development Plan—there was a great emphasis on economic factors including housing, workforce development and small business growth. Through the process of implementing these recommendations over the past two years, it became clear that the absence of cultural strategies from the plan was a major challenge to addressing equity in our neighborhood.

The effects of development in Washington, D.C., can be accounted for through escalated economic displacement over the past 10 years, but also through a rapid shift in the cultural fabric of the city and the residents that now occupy neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River. Residents of the once famed “Chocolate City” are disappearing in neighborhoods like U Street and Shaw where there is an annual decline in the African American population. East of the Anacostia River, 92 percent of residents are African American and 47 percent of the District’s total black population resides there. While effects of displacement are tracked in rising poverty statistics east of the river, there is little information on how new projects will impact neighborhood identity and culture.

Community members attend a Cultural Equity open house. Photo courtesy of the 11th Street Bridge Park

Over the past few months, the Bridge Park has been asking residents, artists, and cultural leaders to identify these less tangible aspects of neighborhood change—what makes people feel a sense of belonging in a neighborhood and what changes signal cultural shifts. By identifying some of these signals of change, residents and stakeholders are able to clearly outline opportunities for action, programming and engagement that will enhance neighborhood pride and a sense of belonging.

Recommendations from the community include:

    1. Creating a physical information hub for residents on the future park

    2. Ensuring there is adequate informal gathering space for spontaneous, resident-led activities

    3. Soliciting consistent feedback from residents on park design and programming through stakeholder groups that the Bridge Park has in place

    4. Programming that is accessible, affordable and welcoming to people of color and residents living nearby

    5. Programming that reflects the local community and amplifies their stories

You can read through the community’s draft recommendations here. Next we will integrate these strategies into our Equitable Development Plan and release a new version this spring. We will also start to implement the strategies immediately, especially through annual programming like the Anacostia River Festival. Our partners at the Urban Institute will also be working with us to outline metrics to measure our impact. For more information on the project and our Equitable Development Plan visit bridgepark.org.

Irfana Jetha Noorani

11th Street Bridge Park

Irfana Jetha Noorani is the Deputy Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of Building Bridges Across the River in Washington D.C. Along with fundraising, Irfana works closely with local stakeholders to plan community-driven programs like the Anacostia River Festival and other placekeeping initiatives in the adjoining neighborhoods. She promotes the project’s equity-first model by providing planning and implementation support on the Bridge Park’s Equitable Development Plan. Irfana is currently working with local artists and residents to develop cultural strategies to add to the plan.

Previously, Irfana worked with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and for New York Live Arts | Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Irfana was a Fellow at The Kennedy Center and received a B.A. from Emory University.
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