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Marvin Gaye Park in NE has neighbors reclaiming their sense of community

By Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; B01

A young girl glides back and forth on a swing, her legs dangling in the warm breeze. Two boys chase each other while another scurries up a domed metal climber.

Jonnesha Thompson, 21, stands close by, tracking her children's every move.

This spot was once nicknamed "Needle Park," because intravenous drug users tossed their empties here. A year ago, yellow, purple and green swings and jungle gyms were installed here atop a brown rubber ground cover.

Now the playground, in Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington, attracts a steady stream of children. Nearby crime has dropped. Next door, H.D. Woodson Senior High School is undergoing a total makeover and new townhouses are under construction.

Mothers like Thompson are feeling safe enough to bring their children there to play. But when one of her sons wandered beyond the gated circle, she quickly scooped him up.

Things are changing, but Thompson remains wary.

"I don't go over there at all," she said, looking beyond the playground.

* * *

It was called Needle Park for a reason.

When the 1.6-mile-long stretch of grass and woods -- formerly called Watts Branch Park, for the stream running through it -- was turned over to the District in the 1970s, it quickly became an open-air heroin market.

Wendy Thornton, 52, was a regular visitor when she moved to the neighborhood 15 years ago. "I took my kids to school, I would get drugs," she said. "If I didn't have money to get drugs, then I would get alcohol."

Thornton cleaned up five years ago, and so have parts of the park.

In 2001, the nonprofit group Washington Parks & People partnered with the District for a massive cleanup. In the continuing effort, volunteers have hauled away at least 40,000 bags of garbage, 14,000 hypodermic needles and 89 abandoned vehicles.

Millions of dollars have been spent on shrubs, trees, lighting, a trail, an amphitheater, stream restoration and the playground. Two new sections of the park opened in June. In 2006, it was renamed Marvin Gaye Park, for the soul singer who grew up six blocks away.

Groups involved with the park, including the National Recreation and Park Association, are studying the impact of the investment and plan to publish a report this fall. A preliminary review, however, shows that 50 to 70 children play for about 25 minutes daily when the weather is nice and that most live within a 10-minute walk.

"It's a success story in the aspect of we're getting kids outside that didn't have a place to go," said Barbara Tulipane, chief executive officer of the park association.

"They are getting active," she added. "There is a sense of community starting to build."

In nearby neighborhoods in Northeast, 90 percent of the heads of households are single African American women. The median annual income for full-time work is $19,200.

Nearby streets are lined with gas stations, churches, abandoned buildings, and fast-food and liquor stores. There are no major grocery stores in the immediate area.

And neighbors said that the park is still used for drug deals. In May, a girl punctured her foot on a needle and a man was shot in the head while bicycling through the park.

Still, Robert Contee, commander of the police district that includes the park, stationed officers nearby all summer, and crime dropped 52 percent between May and August compared with the same period last year. "Some of the crimes that would happen in the park several years ago, we're seeing less and less of that," he said.

Inching back outside

Autumn Saxton-Ross works at the Riverside community center across the street from the playground.

Since she started there last May as an assistant director in charge of health programs, the number of children going to the community center has grown from 15 to about 50 each month.

The increase is partly due to the playground, whose users often drift over to get a drink of water. They stay, said Saxton-Ross, 33, for such things as bike repairs, beat poetry sessions, tree planting, cooking classes and a farmers market.

"For so long, people went inside to keep safe," she said. "It's going to take a while to get them to come back outside."

The park and playground, she said, are just initial steps in an uphill battle to counter deeply ingrained fears of the park.

"We focus on physical changes, but if people are still in a downtrodden mind state, it doesn't make a difference if something's pretty," she said.

As she spoke, a bulldozer rumbled at the Woodson construction site. The renovation is one of several projects under the District's New Communities Initiative, designed to revitalize Lincoln Heights and other low-income neighborhoods.

This fall, city officials will open 26 mixed-income housing units nearby. And the city is negotiating a deal for retail and office units on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue.

But experts caution that development projects, including parks and playgrounds, are not cure-alls for blighted areas.

"A park can be a vehicle for creating social organization and community," said Gregory D. Squires, a professor at George Washington University who studies urban growth and inequality. "If it doesn't catalyze something else, it's not going to be a great contribution to the neighborhood."

'For children only'

At the playground on a recent Friday, a dozen neighborhood boys and girls teased each other before hopping on the swings and jungle gyms, shrieking with laughter.

One of them, a 14-year-old boy, stayed on the periphery of the circle, eyeing them and the passersby beyond the fence. He nodded toward a man shuffling up the road. "See that guy?" the boy whispered. "He go around here," he said, "smoking weed, stealing cars, selling drugs. I don't talk to him."

The playground is a reprieve. Leaving it, the boy said, means encountering "people doing stuff that's a bad influence."

On the other side of the fence, farther down Division Avenue, Robert Price, 56, stepped out of the PreventionWorks! van with a bag of new syringes.

He has used drugs for 35 years and meets the nonprofit group's van there on Fridays to exchange dirty needles for clean ones.

Price has seen many people shoot up in the park. But when asked about the playground, he said adamantly: "That's for children only. We enforce that rule. If you're going to use drugs, you go home and stay away from the playground."

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