D.C. neglect turns sports oasis into $200,000 field of dirt

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

When he was 8 years old, Caleb Diamond was thrilled to see the D.C. government create a $200,000 oasis in his Northwest neighborhood, a field large enough for soccer and softball players and anyone else who wanted to play on a carpet of fresh grass.

Caleb and his friends didn't get to enjoy the new field for long. Malfunctioning sprinklers saturated the lawn, forcing the city to shut off the water and drying out the grass, which was then torn and ravaged by waves of cleat-wearing ballplayers -- all within a few months of the field's opening.

It was the District's second failed attempt to maintain new sod at Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan. Now, five years later, Caleb is a teenager, nearly a half-dozen city parks directors have come and gone, and the field where he yearns to kick a soccer ball on grass still looks like the Oklahoma dust bowl.

A shuttered one, at that. Two months ago, parks officials put up signs banning all play on the field.

"I don't understand it -- to me, it doesn't seem that hard to get people out here and plant seeds and water the grass," Caleb, 13, said as he stood in the middle of the gully-pocked, divot-addled terrain a block from his home. "I could get my friends to do this."

A city is defined by the grandeur of its skyline and the vibrancy of its streets, but sometimes it's the small things that speak volumes. The saga of Pierce Park is not just about people hungering for that rarest of urban amenities -- open, grassy fields -- but also about what even D.C. officials acknowledge is progress stymied by bureaucratic incompetence.

Mindy Moretti, a nearby resident and advocate for the park, has sent e-mails since 2004 imploring the District to repair the field. It wasn't until this year, she said, parks officials cited a new reason for delaying plans for yet another renovation: Archaeologists searching for remnants of a 19th century burial ground first had to survey the field.

"It's maddening, absolutely maddening," Moretti said as she walked the dirt. "I'd take a field of weeds over this."

Then there are the neighbors who on windswept days and whenever soccer players kicked up dirt saw dust clouds blow through their windows and settle on their shelves, refrigerators and coffee tables. Eileen Keefe and her boyfriend, who live across the alley from the field, had to stop using their deck for two years. "It was like if you dumped baby powder out and turned on a fan," she said. "Any place you could find it, you'd find it."

Closed off

After Keefe and her neighbors complained about the dust, the parks department in August put up signs declaring, "This Field is Closed to All Activity Due to Conditions." Among the reasons an agency spokesman cited for the closing were the dust, the danger of playing on a rutted field and the archaeological survey.

The survey was the outgrowth of the 2005 discovery, on a slope in another part of the four-acre park, of remnants of an African American cemetery that operated between 1870 and 1890. In August, the archaeological team spent three weeks surveying the field with noninvasive radar.

But the team's leader, Howard University anthropologist Mark Mack, said the District did not need to close off the field for the project, a decision that sent teams of soccer players searching for new playing venues. "The soccer actually did not disturb our work," he said.

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