Getting Its Groove Back

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

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 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.

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