City to Revive Park Trail in a 'Forgotten' Corner

Northeast Washington resident Marissa Green, 10, dances to celebrate the start of construction on a trail at Marvin Gaye Park.
Northeast Washington resident Marissa Green, 10, dances to celebrate the start of construction on a trail at Marvin Gaye Park. (By Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

It took five years to haul out 2.5 million pounds of trash, 6,000 hypodermic needles and 78 abandoned cars from the former Watts Branch Park. Yesterday, community leaders and city officials celebrated the beginning of putting something back into the park, which was recently renamed for recording artist Marvin Gaye.

With a giant yellow backhoe and a few small hand shovels for show, the city began work on a 1.6-mile walking and bicycling trail that will connect the northeast corner of the District with a network of regional trails. The $3.1 million project will include lighting, emergency call buttons and other safety measures.

The trail was first constructed in 1978, but it was long neglected and became polluted and dangerous. Community leaders promised a new direction this time.

"We'll never let what happened to this park happen again," said Dennis Chestnut, chairman of the Watts Branch Community Alliance.

Chestnut and other speakers said the trail is only the beginning. Over the next few years, $11 million in improvements will further rejuvenate the park, they said. A new recreation center also will be named after Gaye, who grew up in the nearby former East Capitol Dwellings. His boyhood home no longer exists, but some salvaged bricks will be used in the recreation center, said Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks and People, a nonprofit group that helps restore D.C. parks.

Michelle L. Pourciau, the District's acting Transportation Department director, said the trail network is designed to provide safe access and exercise.

But for many in the neighborhood, the trail will be more than just a place to work out. It is a statement that the residents are a part of the city, not apart from it.

"The trail has a figurative meaning as well as physical," Coleman said, describing the path as a conduit between residents of "the forgotten part of the District" and regional parks and trails.

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, worn to a "V" from years of erosion, will be flattened and widened and its banks made less steep.

The city has been aggressively encouraging cycling and commuting by bike. In addition to the Marvin Gaye path, the city will break ground next month on a section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail from the Navy Yard to Benning Road in Southeast. The city is also planning work on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which follows Metro's Red Line from Union Station to Silver Spring, said Jim Sebastian, the Transportation Department's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

A network of government agencies is supplying the money for improvements to the park and its surroundings. In addition, $1 million has been raised from private sources. About $800,000 from the mayor's Great Streets program will go toward work along the parallel Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, where the abandoned Strand Theater and nearby vacant buildings will be studied for possible redevelopment.

Yesterday's groundbreaking ceremony took place at Division and Foote streets NE, across the street from the former Crystal Lounge, where the future Motown superstar had one of his first performances.

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