At times, the fate of Crispus Attucks Park of the Arts has seemed like that of Sisyphus, the mythological king condemned to spend eternity rolling a heavy stone up a hill only to have it roll down again.
From the beginning the neighborhood park--a recreation center which includes a renovated warehouse on an acre bounded by North Capitol, First, U and V streets NW--has encountered one difficulty after another. The community has tried to build a meeting place while scratching for volunteers and funds amid broken promises and withering enthusiasm.
Last October, the park lost its $100,000 CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) funding, which paid more than half its expenses. That same month, a fire caused by chemicals stored in its basement shut the park.
Since October, Crispus Attucks Park, which is named for a black man who died in the Boston Massacre prior to the Revolutionary War, has remained empty, its windows broken by vandals and litter strewn about the grounds. Remnants of park business have been conducted in the living room of park executive director Richard L. Sowell's nearby V Street row house.
"It's a heck of a struggle," he said.
Some nearby residents complain that creation of the park was a great idea but one that has taken too long. They say Sowell's management is part of the problem.
"It should have been a good project," said Daniel Robinson, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5C. "I don't know whether [the problem is] poor supervision, but it's lacking some expertise somewhere."
Crispus Attucks Park was conceived in 1976 as a cultural and recreational center for everyone, but especially youths, in the surrounding neighborhoods of Bloomingdale, Eckington and Edgewater.
The idea of the park, although debated from the start, resulted in a community fantasy come true: The C & P Telephone Co. donated an abandoned warehouse, a young local architect offered a design and the George Hyman Construction Co. renovated the building with the help of residents' labor. That support was all free.
In its heyday, from 1978 to 1980, the Crispus Attucks Park of the Arts held concerts, classes and political forums. Flyers regularly publicized special events or services for residents. But the park had been in a decline, and the fire and loss of funding merely capped a long period of internal turmoil and disillusionment among its organizers, according to nearby residents.
Although Sowell has many loyal supporters, a number of persons involved with the park criticize his leadership as too autocratic and disorganized.
"The director of the park seems to take everything as his own responsibility," said Rebecca Weaver, 36, the park's bookkeeper from 1978 to 1980, who has lived nearby for more than 13 years. "It got to the point where nobody else had a say . . . like the park belongs to him and nobody else."
Weaver, who was an active board member in addition to keeping the books, said she finally resigned from the park's board, which at full strength was composed of five representatives from each of four neighboring blocks, because "one day I found I was the only one left."
Others who have worked with the park echoed Weaver's sentiments. They said Sowell has alienated the community, especially older and retired persons, by not delegating enough responsibility or accepting others' suggestions and by undertaking projects without board approval. Some described Sowell's manner as abrupt and said he has discouraged volunteers' efforts.
In response to the charges, Sowell said: "That is the job of an executive director of any community organization--to take the bottom-line responsibility."
"The park was fashionable when it started. Afterward, volunteerism dropped off . . . especially in a minority neighborhood where residents aren't educated in civic activities," Sowell said before he was asked about the criticism. In difficult times, he added, people tend to fall into "the individual survival mode."
Initially, the neighborhood planned to hire a professional director. Sowell had been elected chairman of the board of the neighborhood organization that created the park, known as NUV-1. He was to serve as director until a professional was hired, and was paid a token salary ($150 a week) for his full-time work.
But when the board suggested he step down as park director, residents said, Sowell became irate. "He was very upset," Weaver remembered. "He said, 'No way. I'm not going to work under anyone.' "
"We never had the funding to hire a professional," Sowell said. "I filled in because I was the chairman . . . I did this primarily as a volunteer. You make friends and you make enemies, but somebody has to persevere."
Others said Sowell alone was willing to commit himself and devote significant time to the park, however.
And many in the neighborhood are still optimistic about the potential of Crispus Attucks Park. "I'd rather see the kids there at night than out on the street," said Michael Cook, a lawyer new to the area. "Yeah, there's noise. But that's part of living in the city . . . Rick Sowell does a helluva job. He does as much as anyone physically can do."
"It became a habit," Sowell said. "It comes down to, if you want the neighborhood improved, you got to do it yourself."
Sowell, 35, envisions Crispus Attucks Park as a headquarters for special events in Washington, where city officials will come for help in planning ethnic festivals and events to promote the nation's capital. Crispus Attucks, he said, "will be lucrative when the city comes of age."
The park has been granted $2,000 in credit by Ward 5 ANCs for materials to repair the building. Sowell said that will make it possible to begin holding events and renting park facilities again.
And plans are under way to resurrect a Victorian fountain that will make Crispus Attucks eligible for historic landmark status. The bronze and pink granite fountain, sculpted in 1903, was originally erected in James McMillan Park, now a reservoir at Fourth Street and Michigan Avenue NW near Children's Hospital National Medical Center. The fountain has been stored at Ft. Washington, Md., since 1939.
The fountain could represent rejuvenation for the park and the community's enthusiasm.