A few months ago, when children scurried about the neighborhood thrilled with the coming of summer, Ronald Pugh got an old, black tire from a heap of worn-out rubber at a corner gas station. He hung the tire from the lowest branch of an ailing oak tree that bends into the unpretentious block on 6th Street SE between Chesapeake and Darrington streets.
A pack of small, shirtless bodies, most no higher than the fire hydrant they rushed past, sped up the street and crowded around the tire swing, each pushing to get the next turn.
"And then it just disappeared," Pugh said. "I looked around one day and it was on the other side of the mountain (a steep hill youngsters here consider a boundary line between territories). And I found out some little kids had taken it and had it hanging over there."
"That's how bad it is," he added.
The people who live in this section of southeast Washington's Highland community say their children are without a safe, clean place to play, their streets are crumbling mounds of rubble and their debris-strewn neighborhoods "don't have any beauty at all."
They feel very much like a hiiden, well-kept secret in Washington, many say, pushed so far into a remote southeast corner of the District that they almost spill over the Prince George's County line.
Nobody cares about their problems, they say, nobody except Ron Pugh.
"He's trying to clean up 6th Street and I think it's great. He's over my house talking about it every day," said Grace Bennett as she sat on the steps outside her apartment.
Pugh, 27, says he is determined to put grass and flowers where beer bottles and overturned trash cans now lie. He wants to turn a small, grassy lot nearby into a neighborhood park of the children on 6th Street, with three swings, a sandbox, a miniature basketball court and a sliding board.
Pugh is a Ballou High School graduate who has lived with his parents in a small, comfortable brick house in this community for 15 years. Their home is around the corner from the block of 6th Street residents whose daily lives Pugh is intent on upgrading.
At a time when jobs are scarce among young blacks in the city, Pugh left his position as a clerk with a federal housing and community development program in June because of "family problems." Since then, sporting a new beard that hardly camouflages his cherubic face, he has been doing what he says he could not do under that program: really work for his community.
"I'm just trying to do something positive for the brothers and sisters around here," he said. "With a lot of this urban beautification there comes something spiritual too, you know. I'm trying to get some spirit, some morale for the people."
He is also trying to get topsoil, sod, trees, shrubbery and flowers to cover several neglected spots in the neighborhood.
He talks daily to the men and women here, mainly young, low-income families with children, urging them to remove the trash from their dirt lawns and keep their block of 6th Street clean.
He makes rounds, often in worn jeans and an old shirt, to the local babershop, cleaners and variety store, urging the owners to make the fronts of their businesses as attractive as the fronts of their homes.
Most urgent, however, he'll tell you, is getting a playground for the children who unhesitatingly ask him for a quarter for the ice cream man. He knows all the kids here.
"We've got wall-to-wll children," one neighbor said when asked to give her best estimate of how many children live in the area.
"I believe there's hundreds of children down in here and not a playground at all," said another.
Pugh said that is why he decided to make use of the neglected lot behind the Southeast Child Development Center at 6th and Chesapeake streets.
The Rev. James A. Williamson, who is pastor of Holy Trinity Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, owns the 143-by-79 foot area and has okayed the use of the land for the community playground.
Sam Jordan, Mayor Walter E. Washington's special community troubleshooter, said the park and beautification project "sounds like a tremendous idea. I've heard good things from others about the project and I'm going out to look over the area in a few days."
Jordan, who said he could not say what kind of assistance the District government would give to Pugh's project until he sees the area, did hint that his office may be able to get surplus play equipment from the Department of Recreation and help Pugh acquire other materials if private or public funds are not available.
Private and public donations of tables, benches, trash cans, paint and other playground equipment are what Pugh is hoping for . He still needs the use of a truck and tractor for hauling and clearing the playground area.
The only recreation facility nearby is the Washington Highland Community Center, which has an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, tennis and basketball courts and a skating center. Located at 8th and Yuma streets, the center is within walking distance for the children in Pugh's neighborhood, but only if they're accompanied by an adult or a teenager, said a worker at the center.
Some of the people here are excited about the neighborhood project.
"Yeah, I'll clean up. I'll do anything to get this place cleaned up," said Sandra Malloy, a resident of the neighborhood.
Maxine Sutton, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner representing area 8D-10, offers her support too. "One of the things I like about the project is that it's a self-help program that brings about good neighbor policies."
Not everyone, however, is as enthusiastic of optimistic.
"He's coming from some organization, right? Somebody else got to give up some money besides him, right?" one woman said and walked away.
Unshaken, Pugh yelled to a teenager who stood in the afternoon sun mopping sweat from his grimy face. "Hey, Billy, we're trying to get a park put here."
"Forget the park man, we need a swimming pool," the teenager replied.
"One day we'll have one of those too," Pugh promised.