Georgetown Current

Mount Zion Cemetery Wins Funding

June 29, 2017

By Grace Bird
Current Correspondent

Amid the meticulous effort to preserve the historic Georgetown neighborhood, one of the nation’s oldest black cemeteries has been abandoned there for decades, disappearing amongst rubble and overgrown weeds.

But Mount Zion Cemetery, located at 26th Street and Mill Road NW, may at last see its fortunes reversed this year. Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans successfully pushed for the city’s budget to set aside $200,000 for cemetery repairs.

The cemetery’s land was originally purchased by the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in 1808, functioning as an interracial cemetery. In the mid-18th century, white burials shifted to Oak Hill Cemetery next door, and the oldest black congregation in the country, the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, purchased the land and continued burials of African-Americans there until 1950. Mount Zion Church is still in possession of the land today.

The cemetery, said to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, was decommissioned by the city in 1953 after falling short of health standards. In the 1960s, developers eyed the lucrative land — including the adjacent Female Union Band Cemetery — but were ultimately fended off by activists.

Vincent DeForest, president of the Afro-American Bicentennial Corp., successfully led efforts to add the cemetery to the National List of Historic Places in the mid-1970s. Today, DeForest cautions that any cemetery restoration efforts must be sustainable.

“It’s been hard because each year grass grows — it’s not something that you can do one time and then go on to something else,” he said in an interview. In 2012, the cemetery was included on the DC Preservation League’s “most endangered” list, due to its state of disrepair.

DeForest, who is in his 80s now, has devoted his life to lobbying for equality in America’s historic sites — because to eliminate history, he said, is to create a false present. “We understand the world on the basis of our history,” DeForest said. “It’s more than a project — you’re talking about a legacy.”

Longtime activist Neville Waters, a descendent of some of the first black Georgetown residents, has joined DeForest at the forefront of Mount Zion’s restoration efforts since the 1970s. Waters sees the site’s neglect as the combined result of racism and discomfort. “The memory is so painful and evil you don’t want to think about it,” Waters told The Current. “The lack of awareness is a defense mechanism.”

A Mount Zion cemetery foundation that includes members of the clergy intends to apply for the cemetery restoration funding when it becomes available at the start of fiscal year 2018, according to Waters.

Council member Evans told The Current that the application is only a formality and that he is confident the funding for Mount Zion will be approved. “The way that it’s written, it shouldn’t be difficult,” Evans said of the budget measure.

Fifth-generation Georgetowner Monica Roache became involved in efforts to restore the cemetery when she was elected to the area’s advisory neighborhood commission three years ago.

“Oftentimes, people just aren’t aware of the history and the story,” Roache said in an interview. “African-Americans were not just slaves in Georgetown. They were business owners, they were doctors, and they were lawyers — they made significant contributions to the community.”

While Georgetown’s black community comprises less than 5 percent of the population today, during the 19th and early 20th centuries it hovered between 30 and 40 percent. Despite rampant discrimination, black residents flourished in supportive enclaves, building businesses, churches and schools, and finding avenues to engage in politics.

Exact spending plans for the restoration funding haven’t yet been decided, Roache said. However, she is optimistic that cleanup efforts will shed light on Georgetown’s African-American history for residents and out-of-towners alike. “I’d like this to be a destination when tourists come to D.C,” Roache said.

In advance of the city’s restoration funds, a volunteer cleanup day tackled the cemetery in April. Participants included 80 Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School students and their fathers.

“It was a great day,” Visitation’s head of school Daniel Kerns told The Current. “We hope to make it an annual tradition.”

This article appears in the June 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Group Seeks Visions for Revitalized C&O Canal

June 22, 2017

By Grace Bird
Current Correspondent

The future of Georgetown’s mile-long section of the C&O Canal sparked a lively discussion last week, where interested residents offered a variety of ideas for revitalizing the historic National Park Service-owned waterway.

Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit group overseeing plans to upgrade the canal corridor, hosted a meeting last Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort to collect public feedback. Attendees’ visions for the space ran the gamut from a vibrant restaurant strip to a quiet retreat from the bustle of M Street, and further comments will be accepted through July 14.

Alison Greenberg, executive director of Georgetown Heritage, said the project’s priorities include restoring the narrow, crumbling towpath; implementing educational devices like signs or mobile applications; and ensuring the canal complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Based on those criteria and the public feedback, James Corner Field Operations — which handled the landscape architecture for New York’s famed Chelsea High Line — will produce preliminary sketches by October, and a final outline by mid-2018.

Georgetown Heritage also intends to bring back Georgetown’s renowned mule-drawn canal boat, with Greenberg hoping to share her fond memories of boat rides led by men dressed in old-time garb with today’s children. “It’s a place that people can learn about and really step into a different period of time,” she said.

Georgetown Heritage has already secured funding for the design and construction of a new canal boat and will begin fundraising and grant-hunting for the larger project after next year’s designs are unveiled and priced. The boat faced previous funding issues, and Greenberg intends to ensure that this time all projects are sustainable.

“What’s the point of building a whole new boat if the same thing is going to happen again?” Greenberg asked, referring to the previous boat’s dilapidated condition, which led to its decommission in 2011 and eventual removal in 2016.

Pamla Moore of the Citizens Association of Georgetown told The Current she is pleased that the design firm’s staff took time to the walk the canal, and gain appreciation for its potential. To Moore, a serene area to “enjoy the vegetation and the water and just feel comfortable” would best serve the community.

Lisa Palmer, the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner whose single-member district includes the canal, supports the notion of restoration and will reserve any critiques for next year, when designs are released. “It won’t be another High Line; it’s just not appropriate,” Palmer said. “I’m looking forward to it being a nice place to walk with friends.”

Fellow commissioner Jim Wilcox is pleased with the restoration project: “How could you not be?” However, he added that “there is some tension regarding how intensively [the canal] should be used.”

Residents do generally want at least some increase in activity on the canal, which they hope would deter crime — notably at an area near the aqueduct, widely known as the “graffiti wall.”

“Young kids drink there, and they get robbed, assaulted,” U.S. Park Police Lt. Christopher Cunningham, commander of Rock Creek Station, told The Current. The area requires almost full-time patrol, Cunningham added: “We have someone out there every day. It takes up a lot of time.” Improvements to the Georgetown waterfront about 10 years ago rendered the park area relatively crime-free, and Cunningham speculated that canal restorations might have a similar impact.

To some, the canal’s “rich history” is another key reason to restore it. For others though, rather than evoking fond images of President John Quincy Adams clumsily shoveling the site’s first spadeful of dirt in Georgetown, circa 1828, the canal represents the bloody handwork of slavery — certainly not a history that warrants celebration.

The National Park Service takes its responsibility to present a factual account of the canal’s history “very seriously,” agency spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said.

And according to Greenberg, the canal’s prospective educational programming will present events as they occurred. “The canal has a fascinating history, but it’s also a very sad history,” she said. “We’re absolutely going to tell the public the whole story.”

Residents are encouraged to offer comments on the canal through July 14 at

Meanwhile, the Park Service is currently rebuilding the canal’s locks three and four. This project is “going very well” and is scheduled for completion in summer 2018, Anzelmo-Sarles told The Current.



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Bridge Hazard Still Forcing Trail Closure

June 15, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The trail beneath the Foundry Branch Bridge in Glover Archbold Park near Foxhall has been closed for the past 10 months, as plans have stalled to resolve safety concerns by repairing the deteriorating structure. Meanwhile, the agencies involved in the site appear to differ on its future.

The National Park Service — which controls Glover Archbold as part of its Rock Creek Park portfolio — closed a quarter-mile portion of the north-south trail last August, from the intersection of Foxhall and Canal roads NW north to where a side trail connects to P Street. Since then, signs posted at the trail entrance near Foxhall Road continue to warn that the increasing instability of a long-abandoned trolley bridge that crosses above part of the trail “poses a safety hazard to park visitors.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which owns the bridge, announced plans last fall to reopen the trail by spring 2017, after conducting emergency bridge repairs and building a covered walkway to protect the Park Service trail underneath.

But none of that work has taken place. Rather, Metro has now indicated to the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and other involved agencies that it hopes to demolish the bridge, according to D.C. Office of Planning spokesperson Edward Giefer.

However, other agencies hope that plans for the bridge — a contributing landmark within the Glover Archbold Park Historic District — will go in a different direction, Giefer said.

“The DC State Historic Preservation Office has been working along with the NPS and DDOT to encourage WMATA to stabilize the trestle and transfer it to DDOT so that it can be used as a bicycle/pedestrian trail,” Giefer wrote in an email. “We are not aware that WMATA has made a final decision.”

The National Park Service is still working with Metro on constructing the covered walkway under the bridge, according to Park Service spokesperson Dana Dierkes. That project is expected to be completed this summer, she said.

Transit authority spokesperson Richard Jordan declined to provide details on plans or a timeline for work on the bridge, stressing that there have been no final decisions.

“We are working on a design solution as a temporary measure,” Jordan wrote in an email. “We will also continue to work with all interested parties to develop an appropriate long term solution.”

Jordan also declined to account for construction delays, but added that “various stakeholders are involved in discussions on how to proceed.”

A representative from the D.C. Department of Transportation, which owns the trolley trail portion west of the bridge, did not provide comment in time for publication.

The trolley line dates back to the 1900s, when city dwellers could ride alongside the Potomac River to and from the Glen Echo Amusement Park in Maryland. Much of the former route — which stopped carrying trolleys in 1960 — has become a narrow pedestrian trail, but the Foundry Branch Bridge serves as an eastern stopping point. The Metro-owned stretch east of the bridge, leading to Georgetown University, is overgrown with tree branches and weeds several feet high.

Palisades resident Brett Young has watched with dismay in recent years as Foundry Branch Bridge has fallen further into disrepair. Back in 2014, Young pushed Metro to commission an architectural study of the structure. The transit authority obliged that June, with architecture firm Structura concluding that a host of necessary replacement and repair efforts would cost approximately $2 million, while a temporary stabilization would cost around $800,000.

“It is recommended that a restoration program be implemented within the next three years to address noted structural concerns and to maintain the stability of the framing system and limit further deterioration,” the report reads, adding that until that happens “the structure should be regularly monitored for any changes from its present condition.”

On Sunday, Young showed a reporter several sizable wooden planks that had fallen recently from the bridge — and could have injured someone walking underneath at the wrong moment. The most rapid deterioration happens during snowstorms, Young said. Other curiosities at the site include a bicycle lodged in a tree atop the bridge.

Young has long floated the possibility of converting the three-mile trolley right-of-way from Georgetown to Galena Place in the Palisades into a 30-foot-wide trail with separate lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than a narrow path that’s periodically interrupted by impassable abandoned rail bridges. But given that agencies don’t yet agree on short-term plans, his proposal will likely have to wait a while.

Meanwhile, the Glover Archbold trail closure below the old bridge has not been rigorously enforced. During a visit Sunday afternoon, several joggers breezed right past the broken fence, not looking up at the bridge as they went. The signs aren’t completely ineffective, though — one pedestrian walked up to the fence, snapped a few pictures of the bridge with her smartphone and then turned on her heel.

Upon learning of the fence breach when The Current inquired about it on Monday, the Park Service sent a maintenance crew to repair the fence, Dierkes said. The fence was also repaired “a few weeks ago,” Dierkes said — meaning it has been broken several times since the trail closed.

This article appears in the June 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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