Among Washington's hidden neighborhood assets none is more hidden, nor richer in actual and potential value to its community, than the Crispus Attucks Museum and Park of the Arts.
The "museum" part of CAMPA -- actually more an educational and community center, though there are good pieces of African art on view -- has been functioning for seven years. Hundreds of children from the Bloomingdale neighborhood have spent thousands of hours learning music, dance, stagecraft and other useful arts in the once-abandoned warehouse tucked away in alleys behind U and V streets just to the west of North Capitol.
The park is still a dream. The CAMPA alleys, just this summer collectively rechristened Crispus Attucks Court, don't fit the customary D.C. pattern of a single alley between rows of houses facing parallel streets. There are, in fact, two long alleys behind U and V streets, and they are separated by an expanse of land once used by huge telephone company trucks and now vacant save a scattering of parked taxicabs and private cars.
Every day Rick Sowell, the 38-year-old former band manager, father of four and CAMPA founder who has spent much of his adult life shepherding this unusual institution along, looks out over this nondescript space and sees, in his mind's eye, a gathering place for nearby residents: preschoolers in the playground with their parents sitting in the shade, older kids playing badminton or volleyball, people of all ages enjoying the spill of cool water from a noble fountain, performances in the evening from the platform on the back of the old warehouse.
The focal point of this farsighted but eminently reasonable dream is the fountain -- a long-forgotten statue of three bronze water nymphs that once distinguished a park close by the McMillan reservoir. When the reservoir was fenced off during World War II the Bloomingdale neighborhood lost its only public park, and the fountain was dismantled and consigned to oblivion in woods near Fort Washington.
Much has changed in Bloomingdale since the fountain first appeared, and disappeared. Originally a white middle-class suburb connected by streetcar to the downtown, Bloomingdale gradually was transformed into a black middle-class neighborhood as the anti-black real estate covenants began expiring in the 1940s and 1950s. Under the familiar cycle of pressures -- urban renewal elsewhere in the city, undercapitalization, deteriorating services, decreasing numbers of owner-occupied homes and so on -- things gradually got worse. But compared with certain devastated D.C. neighborhoods, Bloomingdale remained relatively stable and well off.
Sowell's vision is nothing more, nor less, than to recapture the fountain as a symbol of the area's past and its future. In the process he will be restoring an important Washington monument. The fountain was conceived as a memorial to Sen. James McMillan, the Michigan railroad magnate and strong parks advocate whose political acumen improved the nation's capital beyond measure -- he was the chief force in Congress behind the justly celebrated 1901 Senate Parks Commission report to restore and improve L'Enfant's original plan for the city.
Paid for by citizens of Michigan and unveiled in 1913, the fountain was designed by sculptor Herbert Adams and architect Charles Platt, gentlemen who, like other luminaries of the Beaux Arts movement, really knew what they were doing when it came to artistic collaboration. Theirs was a beautiful piece of work, every bit as impressive in scale as the Dupont Circle fountain: Adams' idealized, if somewhat vacant, allegorical maidens stand gracefully on a scrolled podium atop a handsome, heavy marble bowl, itself set in the middle of a low-lying octagonal base.
Today the fountain, sharing space with the African art objects and pictures made by kids inside CAMPA's reconditioned warehouse, is halfway home. (To be precise, half of it is there: The big marble base remained behind, temporarily, when Sowell and his group finally succeeded in reclaiming the piece two years ago.)
The next steps are to acquire an appropriate landscape design for the park and the wherewithal to build it, no small orders but by no means insurmountable in view of CAMPA's record in such matters. This is a bootstrap, low-budget, inner-city organization that, with lots of perseverance, savvy and neighborhood enthusiasm, persuaded the C&P Telephone Co. to donate the warehouse and the George Hyman Construction Co. to aid in the renovation, cut through the District government's red tape to get its alleys renamed, and talked the federal government into handing over the historic fountain.
"We want to be a model for other neighborhoods," Sowell says, "and the fountain, just like opening up the warehouse, will be an example of how not to make limited resources limit what you do. Even after they go away to college or wherever, the kids who help to put up the fountain will come back and take pride in what they did."
Designing the park will be a challenge. The McMillan fountain, created for a green park on the then-outer edge of the city, requires a leafy, soft and yet grand setting to do it justice, while the urban recreational needs of the neighborhood demand a series of hard, flat, open spaces. (A design completed under a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation missed the mark by emphasizing the former at the expense of the latter.) Older people will need quieter places, somewhat separated from the play areas and yet visibly connected to them. The edges of the site, which in visual effect is a great big back yard for the homes facing U, V, First and North Capitol streets, will need special treatment -- the park must be at once separate and distinct from its surroundings and yet welcoming and visually open.
A challenge, yes, and what an opportunity! In the 1950s there was talk of installing the McMillan Fountain in West Potomac Park, as a feature in a proposed national rose garden -- not a bad notion but not nearly as fitting, nor as socially productive, as the idea of making it once again a centerpiece of the neighborhood it first adorned.