One hundred million years ago, give or take, when the prehistoric seas receded, the escarpment was left with a view of the ancient river so magnificent that humans of every description have considered it sacred, in their own way. Native Americans made it a spiritual ground. Poets came for inspiration. More recently, young gentrifiers have offered checkbook homages in the form of down payments on penthouse lofts with a view.
White men built the capital of their new country in the tidewater bowl below, and an early landowner called the overlook Meridian Hill. Pierre L'Enfant ran his ruler along the foot of the escarpment and made it the northern border of his street plan. Several years later, Thomas Jefferson drew a line from the front door of the White House up 16th Street to the top of the hill and declared it the prime meridian for the planet, from which all distance and time should be measured. (Alas, the Greenwich Meridian in England eventually prevailed.)
Then it became a park -- Meridian Hill Park -- and an increasingly complex and diverse cast of characters was drawn to the social and geological drama of the place: Edwardian promenaders, Prohibition partiers, Depression bedrollers, bossy senatorial wives, soccer players, drummers, drug dealers, muggers, lovers, writers, martial artists, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Von Trapp Family Singers, Sun Ra, Tito Puente, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Bill Clinton.
And all the figures who were planted here in bronze, or in spirit, over the years: Dante, Joan of Arc, James Buchanan, Malcolm X and Felix Grucci, founder of the fireworks dynasty.
Until finally on a recent warm late-spring evening, a tall, gesturing figure is standing on the parapet, taking in the view and speaking of doom.
Steve Coleman, 41, is another of the park's characters, a spiritual scion of all the characters who came before. His subject is not physical extinction, but a different kind of vanishing -- the death of the ineffable and evanescent. The perishability of things like views.
He says: "The view is not just a pretty thing to look at. The view is what connects us to where we are, to our geology, to our natural and cultural heritage. Children growing up have trouble understanding maps. In Washington, we have a map at every corner where there's a view."
He goes on: "The city beautiful can't be just an abstraction. It has to be a place we can see and feel. We're in this beautiful city, and this is a place where one can stand and appreciate what a phenomenal city Washington is. That's what we're standing up for. It's not an abstract issue. It's our city."
What is the agent of doom? Coleman points.
It's a bright yellow box, 11 feet high and 17 feet wide, on the roof of the old Roosevelt Hotel immediately south of the park. The box contains a new cooling unit for the 82-year-old building, which is being renovated as $1,400- to $3,000-a-month apartments. The yellow box (it will be screened soon in a blander hue) blocks a tiny swatch of the horizon. From the vantage of the Meridian Hill overlook, the box appears to jut up next to the Washington Monument.
That's it? Coleman has been calling around town in high dudgeon, trying to get city and federal officials to do something about . . . an intrusive air conditioner?
It's not really a surprise. The ancient escarpment has always been a place of magnificent obsessions.
Hidden Hill Today it is Washington's somewhat shabby secret garden. Those who know it are cultish in their devotion. It has cachet that registers in wildly different circles. Landscape architects prove their superior taste by extolling obscure Meridian Hill. White anarchists and anti-corporate protesters show how Down With the Oppressed they are by holding demonstrations in the place black power activists dubbed Malcolm X Park, still the park's unofficial nickname.
But because it has a secret quality, its existence is periodically threatened -- by tall buildings and air conditioners, by crime and drugs, by neglect in a federal parks budget that seems to favor celebrity spaces like Lafayette Square and Yellowstone over a 66-year-old oasis tucked among Washington's residential neighborhoods.
Now some of Meridian's aging walls and staircases are crumbling. The pump on the signature waterfall fountain is broken. The National Park Service has allocated $2.1 million for major repairs to start shortly. Meridian needs another $8 million to $10 million in coming years, but with many federal parks clamoring for funds, there's no guarantee.
And yet the park retains a weird vitality that seems invulnerable to dreary trammels of budgets and bureaucrats. The park is the sum of the little passions and big dreams of its visitors. Many come from Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, and the park is as complicated and fast-changing as those bordering neighborhoods.
On a late afternoon, the upper terrace is no longer a French-style formal play mall. It's a soccer field, and the old-fashioned park benches are bleachers.
Nearly 40 men join the pickup games, nine on a side, to make four teams. They use portable goals that, even after years of regular matches, are so baffling to assemble that the players color-code the pieces with marker pens for easier construction.
They play shirts and skins, and the skins are almost as multi-hued as the shirts, presenting a spectrum from ivory to ebony, with the heaviest concentration among the browns. Players call each other by their countries.
"Brazil, Brazil!" yells Walter Martinez -- aka Colombia -- for a pass to Edumundo Milholo.
Martinez's team scores, and the players throw up their hands in jubilation. The opposing team sits down and another takes its place. Water hazards on the field -- muddy holes -- trap bouncing balls in spectacular splashes.
A woman sells homemade pupusas on paper plates for $1 from a blue cooler. Four little girls in dresses share a bench and balance their plates on their knees.
"You never see any fights out here," says spectator Franklin Ampy, perched on the back of a bench. He moved from the neighborhood to Suitland years ago, but still comes back to take his exercise and watch the soccer. "The main thing is the friendliness of the park. You can be alone in the crowd, or you can talk to people."
When they are not on the field, the Jamaicans stake out the north end of the terrace. Between the Jamaicans and the Latinos are players from Trinidad and Tobago. "The Caribbean has this little section here, from this light to that light," says Mustapha Sanowar of Trinidad and Tobago, bouncing a soccer ball from one foot to another.
With their home bases so well defined, the ethnic cliques feel all the more comfortable mingling when it suits them. Sooner or later they all join the pickup games.
"I feel like I was born in the park," says Gamini Perera, whose park friends call him Sri Lanka. "I'm here every single day. I'm addicted to it. I'm serious."
Their immediate obsession is establishing soccer even more firmly in the park. They'd like to raise funds for organized leagues. They wonder why the Park Service doesn't fix the mudholes.
They almost never go to the parapet to look at the view.
The Park's Start Magnificent obsessions:
A century ago, Mary Henderson, wife of an ex-senator from Missouri, lived nearby in a stone castle. She bought all the adjacent land. It made perfect sense to her that the White House should be moved here, or that the Lincoln Memorial be built here. She crusaded for both. Then she thought of a park, and that was the obsession that took.
Henderson's idea dovetailed with the vision of the federal planners who were just then redesigning the overgrown and neglected Mall, and also calling for a citywide park system. They suggested a park on Meridian Hill that would have a view of the Mall. It was to be Washington's version of the Villa Borghese gardens overlooking Rome. Congress ordered work to begin on the 12 acres between 15th, 16th, W and Euclid streets NW in 1912.
The park opened in 1936 with a mystifyingly motley collection of statues. But they were the best kind of decoration: free, underwritten by donors who really cared about these characters. James Buchanan was a gift of his niece; Congress didn't want to let the mediocre president anywhere near the Mall. Dante was donated on behalf of Italian Americans. The women of France gave the statue of Joan of Arc to salute suffragettes. After much discussion, Joan on horseback was positioned rushing toward the parapet in a way that recalls to later generations the last ride of Thelma and Louise.
Then there are the millions of pebbles.
Budget-minded federal builders had to come up with a cheap yet elegant substance for the walls and niches and balustrades and sidewalks -- all the bits of the park that weren't vegetation. Local sculptor John J. Earley hit upon humble concrete mixed with pebbles to make it interesting. And he thought of harvesting those pebbles from the Potomac riverbed -- a bounty from the prehistoric seas.
As a result, Meridian's walls, niches, balustrades and sidewalks resemble almond-encrusted desserts.
This effect grows on you. By varying the size and hue of the pebbles, Earley turned the park's structures into abstract, pointillist mosaics without any ornamentation but the concrete mix itself.
To accomplish this, he didn't just randomly dump tons of Potomac pebbles into the concrete. He first had to organize them in piles by color and size. It was incredibly tedious, but it earned him recognition as a sainted innovator in the annals of the American Concrete Institute.
Sunrise, Sunset The rhythms of park life obey the season and time of day.
First thing in the morning, Park Service employee John Ross III turns on the sprinklers to water the grass on the upper terrace. This is the water that later in the day will fill the mudholes that bedevil the soccer players.
But from Ross's point of view, his sprinkling supports the players. "It's the only way to preserve the grass," he says.
He gets complaints from park users that the fountains are dry and the concrete is crumbling. He replies that he's frustrated, too, that more money isn't available from "downtown" -- the big bosses in the National Park Service.
"This is a hell of a nice park if they'd do what they're supposed to do," he says. He's a member of the Meridian cult. "I like the scenery. The texture of the walls is beautiful. In springtime, you have different colors. It's a hell of a view. . . . It's beautiful up here, man."
One other thing: "This park has always been in the center of D.C.," says Ross, a Washington native. That's a point that can't be underestimated. Unlike the Mall, or Lafayette Square, this federal park is up in the neighborhoods. Denizens of permanent D.C., as opposed to transient Washington, take great pride of unofficial ownership.
Rock Creek Park Superintendent Adrienne Coleman, who is also responsible for Meridian, used to live in this neighborhood and visit the park regularly. She says she is committed to funding a complete restoration.
Meridian's challenge, according to Coleman, is that competition for funds in the Park Service hierarchy is fierce.
"When you consider the Yosemites and Grand Canyons of the world, a little park, no matter how beautiful it is, just does not fare very well," says Coleman (no relation to Steve Coleman). "We also have to compete with parks within the Washington area as well. Congress, which reviews and approves the Park Service budget, is more familiar with the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the parks downtown."
Actually, the park is in much better shape than it was a dozen years ago, when it was a drug market with a reputation for violence. Dealers used to stash their wares under the garbage cans, and they would chase away Park Service employees coming to take out the trash.
On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 1990, 17-year-old Ricky Magnus was shot in the neighborhood, and he died outside Steve Coleman's house a few blocks from the park. Neighbors held a mass meeting the next night and eventually formed Friends of Meridian Hill, which Coleman now directs.
The neighbors decided to patrol the park after dark, and they came up with ground rules: Each patrol had to be multiracial and had to say hello to everyone it met.
The first night Steve Coleman and some others entered the park, they were scared. But the night was beautiful. There was a glow on the horizon. They didn't see anyone and began to enjoy the serenity.
Then they noticed two shadowy figures on the parapet.
Screwing up his courage and cursing the ground rules, Coleman cautiously approached, stuck out his hand and said, "Hello."
"Hello," came the reply. "I'm Reverend Morris Samuel." The other shadowy figure was longtime resident Howard Coleman (also unrelated).
The pair had been visiting the park for years. Samuel courted his wife here. Tonight they were just admiring the view.
The Garden of Good Since that night, community activism and renewed police attention have driven away most of the drug dealers and let families feel safe to pursue their park rituals and passions.
Some rituals are daily. A watch could be set by the coming and going of the dog-walkers.
Some rituals are weekly. On Tuesday mornings, members of a tai chi club work on their graceful sequences of movements.
Some are annual. Christians gather near the reflecting pool (even when it's dry) for the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday. Pagans assemble on the upper terrace at solstice.
Some are measured in centuries. To protest the 500th anniversary of Columbus Day, Native Americans of various tribes walked across the country in the fall of 1992 and ended their journey with a ceremony on Meridian Hill, the ancient spiritual ground.
Ed Dutch, 56, relishes the human tides that have ebbed and flowed in the park. When he was a boy, this was one of his favorite places to play. Now he's the U.S. Park Police officer whose beat is the park. Not simply an enforcer, he is a counselor and friend to park users, and a close student of park society.
Consider the sports: When Dutch, who is black, was growing up, the big game was football. Then as more Latinos arrived, soccer prevailed. Now whites are moving into new apartments and Dutch is noticing another passion on the fringes of the soccer games.
"The middle class is coming in, and they mostly throw Frisbees," he says.
Diversity sometimes breeds tensions that play out in the park. Consider the story of the Sunday drum circle.
For more than three decades, drummers have gathered to share rhythms. This is now a firm Sunday afternoon tradition, with as many as 30 drummers and dancers participating before audiences of 100 or more. The drums are congas, djembes, bongos, djoon-djoons, and the rhythms are Afro-Cuban, West African and African American jazz.
Two years ago, new residents of a renovated apartment building complained about the noise. They tried to get the drummers ejected. Other residents came to the drummers' defense.
"They circulated their petition, then we circulated our petition," says Doc Powell, musical director of the Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers, one of the groups that form the drum circle.
As a compromise, the drummers moved to the overlook, away from the apartments at the north end of the park. "Personally, I like it over there better," Powell says. "It's a beautiful view."
In that case the drum circle became a focus for friction, but the circle also is a metaphor for how dissonance can yield harmony. Corinna Moebius, a recent white arrival to the neighborhood, discerns in the drum circle evidence of the park's strength, the way it seduces visitors into blending and improvising and making something new out of disparate ingredients.
During the Sunday afternoon jams, Latino and African drumming styles compete, then combine. The circle embraces and absorbs all comers. Master drummers like Baba Ngoma and Barnett Williams pass down the traditions to novices. Moebius plays a cowbell in the circle, and white drummers sometimes join in.
Sometimes it's cacophony. Sometimes it's art.
"The interesting thing is, the drum circle has different contingents," says Moebius, who got a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington to study the Meridian circle as an archetypal urban gathering place. "It's sort of like society. Different stakeholders, different points of view, but somehow people, no matter how much they might gripe about things, they come together and they love it."
The Long View So two centuries after L'Enfant and Jefferson, people are still coming to the city's prime meridian to get their bearings -- only now it's not just geographical but cultural. The park is located amid Washington's most international acres, a nexus of white, black and Latino.
Every Fourth of July, the thousands of visitors are reminded of the original reason the park was built here -- the view. The park is one of the best places in the city to see the fireworks on the Mall, though the show is getting harder to see.
The greatest damage to the view was done years ago. In 1919 Congress debated how tall to allow the Roosevelt Hotel to be built. Defenders of the view succeeded only in canceling plans for a rooftop restaurant on the eight-story building. In 1964, the 10-story Meridian Towers went up next door. It was built at a time when the park was all but forgotten, and there is no record that anyone objected. The Meridian apartment building is an ugly specimen, the color of a used cigarette filter, in the architectural tradition of a tall motel, with four massive satellite dishes on the roof.
More recent obstructions are evidence of the neighborhood's rejuvenation. The park's success contributes to its undoing: As Meridian Hill became safer, and investment returned to the city as a whole, this became desirable real estate again. Formerly vacant eyesores, like the Roosevelt, were tastefully restored.
The Roosevelt's rooftop cooling unit is placed right where people look to see the rockets' red glare west of the Washington Monument. To the east on 15th Street, the new Lofts at Meridian Hill (two-bedroom condos for $500,000 to $700,000) are taking out another slice of the view toward the Capitol.
Federal and city preservation officers say no law protects the view, even though the historic vista is one of the reasons the park is a national landmark. Park pathways were designed to point at the Washington Monument.
"We were under the impression these buildings were old mistakes and wouldn't happen again," Steve Coleman says. "We had no idea there were loopholes one could literally drive a penthouse loft through."
A couple years ago, the federal Commission of Fine Arts composed a list of possible places for monuments around the city, aside from the Mall. The commission suggested locating some kind of low monument where the Meridian Towers is today -- implicitly suggesting the Towers might be torn down eventually. That got Coleman thinking: How much money it would take to buy the top two floors of the Towers -- and lop them off? He's serious.
On another late spring evening, people are gathered at the parapet, taking in what's left of the view. The Potomac pebbles on the railing are worn smooth from generations of forearms in repose.
The setting sun casts an orange glow over the city. The top third of the Washington Monument pokes above the Roosevelt.
Nothing yet obstructs the view toward Foggy Bottom. The vista sweeps over the dome of St. Matthew's Cathedral, to the skyscrapers of Rosslyn and on toward Baileys Crossroads. In the other direction, the Capitol dome gleams in the gathering dusk. Beyond it are the hills of Anacostia, and then the pearl horizon stretching to infinity.