Getting Its Groove Back
A Park Under Restoration Will Be Renamed Today for Marvin Gaye
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006; Page C01
Dennis Chestnut, a carpenter who has lived in the Hillbrook section of Northeast Washington his whole life, remembers swimming in the Watts Branch tributary of the Anacostia River on sweltering summer nights in the 1950s. He remembers Marvin Gaye as a teenager growing up in the District, hanging out on street corners near the park, singing a cappella with his buddies. And he remembers Lady Bird Johnson showing up May 18, 1966, with a shiny shovel, men in suits and plans for a wildflower meadow to be started in the heart of urban Washington.
He would like to rewrite history for the three decades after, when pollution fouled the water and trash filled the creekside park as it steadily became unfit for anyone but junkies. That is, until he and 24,000 other volunteers laid siege to it during the past five years.
Watts Branch Park is officially rededicated as Marvin Gaye Park on what would have been the singer's 67th birthday. There is much yet to be done, but the 1.6-mile-long park is well on its way to being turned into what one activist calls the "east-of-the-river equivalent of Rock Creek Park."
Watts Branch Park will be officially rededicated as Marvin Gaye Park this afternoon, on what would have been the singer's 67th birthday. There is much yet to be done, but the 1.6-mile-long park is well on its way to being turned into what one activist calls the "east-of-the-river equivalent of Rock Creek Park." It has become a cornerstone in the redevelopment of a long-neglected northern Ward 7, sparking new life and new enterprise on nearby streets. And in the next few years, $11 million in improvements will further rejuvenate the park.
The notorious "Needle Park" on Division Avenue NE is now a cleaned-up commons dubbed Heritage Green. Nearby, the abandoned Crystal Lounge, where the future Motown superstar had one of his first performances, has been revived as a community center, bright and inviting with a blue-and-green mosaic depicting a winding stream full of fish and a tree with roots in the community. Along the curbstone, children have drawn memorials to local heroes.
A vegetarian cooking class begins this week, with hopes of becoming a restaurant or commercial kitchen. A nascent native plants greenhouse might one day host job training for budding nursery workers and provide a convenient place for residents to buy garden plants.
Over the five years, thousands of volunteers -- led by Washington Parks and People -- pulled more than 2.5 million pounds of trash, 6,000 hypodermic needles and 78 abandoned cars from the stream and its surrounding land. One thousand native trees have been replanted. On summer weekends, a produce market draws children to Heritage Green; outdoor movies are screened from a hillside amphitheater; and concerts, planned and unplanned, break out.
In time, the paved path will be lighted and widened for walkers, cyclists and skaters and better marked where it crosses streets. Emergency call buttons, necessary in a neighborhood still troubled by crime, will be installed. The streambed, scoured to a "V" from years of erosion, will be flattened and widened and its banks made less steep.
A network of government agencies is supplying the $10 million. In addition, $1 million has been raised from private sources and in-kind support. About $800,000 from the mayor's Great Streets program will go to work along the parallel Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, where the abandoned Strand Theater and nearby vacant buildings will be studied for redevelopment.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) noted that last year at that intersection, the city closed a methadone clinic that drew hundreds of drug addicts. Then last month, city officials announced that the Lincoln Heights neighborhood will be part of the city's New Communities initiative, which pumps money and social programs into poor enclaves for jobs, housing, retail and services. Plans are afoot to rebuild the multi-story H.D. Woodson High School, which looms over the park, all part of a comprehensive redevelopment approach, Gray said.
"What we've done is try to create a critical mass of activity, because this is a focal point of the north area of Ward 7, a part of the city that has been badly neglected," Gray said. "Parks themselves don't change the character of an area, but as we make these changes and improvements, more citizens will take ownership of the park. It creates an amenity that will be an additional incentive for people and businesses to locate to that area."
On a warm spring day, however, what is most notable are the young women, deep in conversation, strolling past blooming daffodils, a burst of schoolboys released from classes and the retirees poking along the paved path who might be looking back to the park's beginnings.
Flowing With History
The stream corridor was always an integral part of easternmost Washington. A trolley ferried residents to an amusement park, Suburban Gardens, known as "the black Glen Echo," where children's rides joined boxing and swimming exhibitions and appearances by world-famous speakers such as Clarence Darrow.
In 1936, the federal government bought the first parcel to formally create the park. It was a patchwork; streets bisected the greenery, and some private homes interrupted public access.
As in much of Washington, historic events unfolded there. In 1961, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called on area residents to join him in a sit-in at a downtown lunch counter.
In 1966, Lady Bird Johnson rededicated the park in her "Keep America Beautiful" campaign. "No one more than the residents of this area know what magic has been wrought here at Watts Branch," she told the crowd.
Marvin Gaye, living in East Capitol Dwellings near the east end of the park, would sit beside the stream, write songs and sing. Before too long, he headed to Detroit and fame, but some people hear echoes of Watts Branch in his songs about the environment. (Gaye died April 1, 1984, in Los Angeles, shot to death with a gun he had given to his father, the day before the singer's 45th birthday.)
Watts Branch Park was maintained by the National Park Service "as flawlessly as it maintains Lafayette Park adjacent to the White House," a Washington Post article noted in 1970. Frank Mills, who worked at a gas station across from the park for years, said he never saw any vandalism. "The people around here sleep, eat, play football, have little love affairs, you name it, in that park. They don't destroy it," he said.
When the federal government turned the park over to the city in the early 1970s, the city stopped virtually all maintenance. Parks workers would not remove trash because streets intersected the park, which they said made it the responsibility of the streets department, whose employees said they were not responsible for parkland.
The stream, polluted for years from street runoff and trash dumps, began eroding, sending large volumes of soil into the Anacostia. Landfill from the construction of MCI Center was dumped along the riverbank. Drug users increasingly found the park a convenient place to hang out.
Nine years ago, Washington Parks and People sought out "the worst park in the city, where they needed help most desperately," said Steve Coleman, executive director. The group was pointed to Watts Branch.
Creating a Vision
When Coleman and colleagues took a walk through the park, they saw hope.
"An official from the city government was pointing at every dump pile, saying people around here are animals, and yet there we were, meeting people from the community who cared about the park, who had been baptized in the stream, who walked there every day," Coleman said. "We also met kids who were trying to play in the park, including one boy who called himself Nature Boy, and he introduced us to his version of the park."
Coleman asked anyone he met what the first step should be. Trash cans, the children said. Coleman resisted, saying the children were thinking too small. But the kids insisted that litter was inevitable unless there was a place to toss it. After trash cans were put in place, the renovation took off.
Agencies stepped forward to add fiscal resources and organizational muscle: The city's Health Department and Parks and Recreation Department, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others have signed on to pay attention over the long term.
The stream is remarkably accessible despite how little-known it is outside of the area. It starts in Maryland and flows into the District at its easternmost point, near Metrorail's Capitol Heights station. The stream and park wind past the well-used city recreation center, basketball courts and athletic fields at 62nd and Banks streets, then dip around the 75-year-old barbershop that John Campbell owns near 57th and Dix streets NE.
Some of the poorest, most densely populated and crime-prone streets in the city intersect the park, and improving visitors' safety is one of the goals of the redevelopment.
Rebecca Stamps, who runs the nonprofit Project Blessings for Hurting Parents in Lincoln Heights, would not go into the park when she arrived in 1985. Now, when she looks at the evolving space from her 50th Street perch, she sees more playgrounds and a place for outdoor Bible classes. Stamps even had a dream about the park a few weeks ago.
"I think it's a good vision," she said. "What this world needs is more people with vision who do what it takes to bring that vision to pass."
Downstream, the park ends at traffic-clogged Minnesota Avenue, although there is interest in extending it to where it empties into the Anacostia at the National Arboretum. Grand plans aside, the most amazing changes to people who live and work nearby are the smallest.
"Do you know what I saw in that creek?" asked Campbell, the barber. "Ducks! I was shocked. Here, in D.C.!"