By Alyssa Smaldino

Though I lived in Washington, DC for 4 years during my undergraduate studies, I’d never heard of Deanwood until I began working in the area with Medici Road in October 2022. A predominantly Black neighborhood situated east of the Anacostia River along the Maryland border, Deanwood is in many ways tucked away from the activity of Capitol Hill and K Street. Yet, its history and progress are rich and nuanced, shedding light on valuable lessons for community development practitioners and others who are invested in equity and repairing harm.

In early 2023, several team members at Medici Road engaged in a human-centered design process to address the food apartheid in the area. My exploratory research (which focused on interviews with local academics and organizers) began to contextualize how Deanwood became what it is today–a neighborhood that is rich in community and culture, but often lacking essential services for low-income residents due to decades of neglect and, in some cases, blatant harm from government. 

There is still so much for me to learn about Deanwood, but this piece is an attempt to “learn in public” so we may generate conversation about how to allocate resources and navigate policy choices in a way that honors the power and resilience of Deanwood residents and repairs some of the losses they have experienced. 


Born out of farmland owned by white farmers and worked by enslaved Black people, Deanwood was one of the rare neighborhoods in which Black families purchased subdivisions that white owners put on the market in the 1870s. Those early purchases set a precedent for Black homeownership and land cultivation in the neighborhood, which remained a site of urban farming through the early 1950s. On the northern side of the Great Migration, families that found their way to Deanwood were able to maintain farming and agriculture practices that their ancestors passed down, but this time for their own benefit. Ashanté Reese summarizes in this excerpt from Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. (UNC Press, April 2019): “…farming was emblematic of the continued subjugation of African Americans who were unfairly cheated out of money, their labor, or produce. On the other hand, the skills they learned as farmers were used to cultivate a multifaceted foodscape in Deanwood that included gardens, small farms, and independently owned general stores.”

The rise of the supermarket in the 1950s, compounded by segregationist housing policies, changed all of that. I spoke to Johns Hopkins Ph.D candidate, Dominique Hazzard, who described a fairly rapid transition from small grocers, many of which were Black-owned, to centralized supermarkets that offered convenience and cheaper prices. Small grocers couldn’t compete and were forced out of business. Once that process was almost complete, however, grocery stores “pulled a switch-a-roo,” in Dominique’s words. “They redeveloped their model to become even more profitable… They out-compete smaller, more well-distributed options and then turn around and start closing stores in low-income neighborhoods,” a process known as grocery store redlining. This happened concurrently with white flight, where white families moved to the suburbs (where supermarkets continue to proliferate despite a persistent dearth of grocery options in historically redlined urban neighborhoods). 

Today, there are no grocery stores within Deanwood. Residents have to travel at least one neighborhood over to purchase groceries from a supermarket like the ones that displaced Deanwood’s small grocers, and the groceries nearby are often overpriced. Dominique reminded us, “Included in food apartheid is higher prices for lower quality goods … These parallel interlocking processes created the [food apartheid] landscape we have today.” 

In some cases, these “parallel interlocking processes” also disconnected the residents of Deanwood from source, which Autumn Brown of the Anti-Oppressive Resource & Training Alliance describes as “spiritual practices, indigenous practices, a sense of connection to land and who our people are.” So in our team’s human-centered design process, we named the importance of programs reconnecting residents to these practices. Along the way we discovered several people and organizations who are doing that (including the Marvin Gaye Urban Farm, Dreaming Out Loud, and Imbeka Foods). Inspired by their and others’ work, we wondered: how might intergenerational storytelling and training in indigenous agriculture practices reconnect community members to source? How might Deanwood residents get paid for these activities, channeling their energy and labor for their own community’s benefit, while reclaiming the food landscape from the parties that created food apartheid? 


The history of Deanwood is one that includes too much loss, alongside countless stories of reclamation. I spoke to a local influencer, gardening coach, and founder of Gardening and Beats, Kimani Anku. Before he got involved in gardening, he was in a rough place. He was plagued by high blood pressure and diabetes, eating mostly junk food and consistently gaining weight. These experiences were mirrored by people my colleagues interviewed in Deanwood’s closest grocery store. Interviewees seemed resigned, too stressed to worry about healthy eating – a practice that seems to be associated with high costs and disposable time, neither of which people have. 

Kimani found reclamation in gardening. “Gardening saved my life and made me healthier,” he told us. We heard similar sentiments from Steve Coleman, Founder of Washington Parks & People, which has invested in the restoration and maintenance of over 250 parks in Washington, DC. “When people have trauma coming at them [from oppressive institutional practices],” Steve reflected, “parks and green space can be a resource.” He has seen evidence of this as countless families and communities have reclaimed green spaces as their own, even after having to fight the government to remove garbage that the City of Washington, DC and neighboring jurisdictions were dumping en masse in what is now Marvin Gaye Park in Deanwood. These and other community organizing efforts show us that connection to land, culture and spirit can create safe spaces for people to reclaim connection to their bodies and minds. 

Cross-section of Marvin Gaye Farms


Stories of Deanwood’s history are often couched in a dominant narrative that suggests communities facing poverty or food apartheid are “poor” and complicit in their own struggles. Dominique told us that in her Ph.D research, when she spoke to residents about the causes of food apartheid, they often held a narrative that Black residents themselves burned all their own [grocery] businesses down in the 1968 fires. When she dug deeper, it became clear that almost all the stores that were looted and burned were Safeway’s, while Giant supermarkets were largely untouched. Upon further research she learned that Giant employed local community members, had a robust community engagement strategy from day one, and was owned by a local Maryland resident who supported civil rights. Safeway, on the other hand, reportedly refused to employ Black people as clerks, frustrating community members to the point that as early as 1941 the Washington, DC chapter of the NAACP started a boycott of local Safeway stores. 

Thus, it may be inferred that the looting of Safeway stores likely relates to this history, but the dominant narrative has drowned it out and convinced some that residents themselves are complicit in their own food apartheid. This narrative, alongside so many others, is harmful, yet it’s widespread. 

At Medici Road, we seek to disrupt these dominant narratives by restoring truthful stories. As we envision programming that might restore truth and hope, we imagine giving local scholars and leaders like Dominique and Kimani, as well as community elders, a platform to connect with young people and share their stories. As Steve said, “By themselves, people can feel powerless. But when you put those intergenerational forces together, they can move mountains.”

Deanwood and other communities across the country are resetting cultural norms and restoring the humanity that systems of oppression have attempted to strip down. We hope our work at Medici Road can contribute to this culture change. If you’re connected to a local organization or business, a philanthropic effort, or other potential partner, we’d love to explore how we might collaborate to create a more liberated future within and beyond Deanwood.