By Joe Lapp
Thanks to Helen Fowler’s advocacy and constant care from the National Park Service, the ponds that make up the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens have remained relatively untouched for the last century. But the adjacent neighborhood has seen radical change.
Check out these two photos:
The 1926 print above shows residents of the Kenilworth suburb meeting at a community hall in the nearby town of Benning. These are the neighbors of lily ponds creator W. B. Shaw. Some of his descendants are likely in attendance, maybe even his daughter Helen, who took over her father’s water garden business.
This August 2022 snap shows current and former Kenilworth Courts (the public housing complex just outside the park’s gates) residents enjoying the annual Kenilworth Reunion.
Can I take you on a brief time travel through white flight, gentrification, and what race and water lilies might have to do with it all? Here we go. Soon after W. B. moved to the eastern corner of Washington, DC in the late 1800s, the Kenilworth suburb sprang up. This suburb was as white as the water lily flowers he grew in the back marsh, and middle-income by nature. Race was integral to housing choices back then, and over the years some Kenilworth residents raised multiple objections to Black neighbors attending the local schools or moving into area housing.
Yet this white, middle class suburb was done in around 1950 by the kind of government mismanagement that we often see applied to low-income communities of color. Nearly half the neighborhood was bulldozed to widen Kenilworth Avenue into a commuter artery. This coincided with a period of “white flight” as wealthier families left cities, and slowly the remaining households in the original Kenilworth suburb left.
Water lily note: Around that time, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens nearly met the same fate as the suburb, with W. B.’s daughter Helen fighting the government to save her ponds from bulldozing by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Then, in the late 1950s, up sprang Kenilworth Courts. Necessitated by city “slum clearance” projects, it was one of DC’s first public housing complexes welcoming both white and Black residents. For those moving in from other substandard housing, it was a place of promise. But, by the 1970s, under-investment combined with an increasingly transient and poor population saw the complex become, according to one mayoral aide, “hell on earth.” Growing up in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw a mostly Black community beset by urban ills.
As the neighborhood became more troubled, the park suffered from neglect as well. Where before the gardens had been simply part of the neighborhood, and an employer for locals of both races, suddenly it was walled off by a fence that kept out vandals and park lovers alike.
Now the neighborhood is changing again, as parts of Kenilworth Courts are torn down for redevelopment. While many white and middle-income earners fled the city in the fifties, the current trend of gentrification sees that demographic moving back in. Access to public transportation, recent new bike trails, relatively low housing prices, and of course the beauty of lilies and lotus makes Kenilworth a desirable location for new housing. I dream of a thriving neighborhood with local businesses that serve the community, and a national park so well-loved and taken care of that the fence can come down.
As the neighborhood changes yet again, I hope for two things. One, that the park can be a positive constant bringing people together and contributing to neighborhood community and diversity, helping to overcome the area’s historical struggles with racial inequality and urban blight.
And here’s the second thing: I hope the park, and the neighborhood, can honor and extend the positive legacy of the Black Kenilworth Courts families who bonded together, during the difficult times, to overcome all the challenges their neighborhood and city threw at them.
Look at that second photo again. The annual Kenilworth Reunion is run by Kenilworth Courts old-timers who led their own neighborhood revitalization in the eighties and nineties under local leader Kimi Gray. Keeping them, their kids, their grandkids, and their great grandkids connected to the neighborhood and the park will bring benefits for the aquatic gardens and for the community where it sits.
Over half a century ago, bad urban planning decimated the Kenilworth suburb and nearly destroyed the gardens, too. Maybe the lily ponds’ survival can help the newest round of urban planners and park lovers build, not destroy, the local community. And, as the area faces the seemingly inevitable forces of gentrification, let’s make the park ever more accessible to all, no matter income, ability, or background.
Want to learn more? Read up on the Kenilworth area through Joe Lapp’s history writing. You can download a free grant-supported booklet or buy the coffee table book Washington At Home, featuring neighborhood history essays from around the city.