As lightning from a distant thunderstorm provided a natural fireworks display, more than 25,000 people congregated in Anacostia's Fort Dupont Park Friday night for an evening of fine music and home-cooked food. Although the event was briefly disrupted by rain, there was no other disturbance, not one arrest and as far as U.S. Park Police could determine not even a whiff of marijuana or any other kind of drug being used.
This was a refreshing occasion, a gathering of families and friends whose celebration was more indicative of the spirit of the Fourth of July than the raunchiness that characterized the national birthday party on the Mall the night before.
Unfortunately, it is Anacostia that suffers from a reputation as the land of the wild and restless while, year after year, suburbanites storm the Mall, get drunk and go crazy, then escape like runaway cattle with their reputation as civilized people intact.
Most of them wouldn't think of venturing east of the Anacostia River to mingle in that predominately black community, which is probably just as well since many of those congregated on the Mall last Thursday obviously do not know how to act outside of their own neighborhoods.
But Anacostia residents want people to visit their neighborhood, to see their community as the vibrant place filled with hopes and aspirations that it really is.
"Anacostia's reputation as a trouble spot means that a lot of people are afraid to come over here -- and that's unfair," said Al Dale, chief of public events for the U.S. Park Service. "There are a lot of positive things happening over here that go unnoticed. For instance, vandalism is way down compared to what it was 10 years ago, and I think that's directly related to an increase in community activities for young people during the summer months."
Since the U.S. Park Service began sponsoring free summer concerts at Fort Dupont Park seven years ago, residents have turned out en masse for personal communions with a variety of performing artists, demonstrating through their warm receptions and peaceful departures that all they needed was a little attention.
"I love you, D.C.," said singer Jean Carn, as the crowd roared to its feet on Friday night. "I broke my first big hit right here in this city, and I have you all to thank."
"I love singing here," Carn said just before taking to the stage. It was her third appearance in Anacostia. "The people are so warm and so caring that they make me feel free as a performer."
Al Johnson, who once sang with the old Unifics, led off the show with a tune called "Peaceful," in which he captured the mood of Fort Dupont Park that night.
"Peaceful, it's so peaceful in my private hideaway . . . ," Johnson sang. "The birds make music night and day, and life takes on new meaning when it's peaceful . . . . "
From the audience someone shouted with satisfaction, "He knows how I feel about it."
This was in sharp contrast to the chaos on the Mall.
Instead of fist fights, stabbings, comatose drunkards and haywire fireworks, the scene in Anacostia was one of folks laid out on blankets and lawn chairs, eating fried chicken and sipping beer.
When the show ended, there was no storm-trooping, and no shoving people down escalators or kicking people out of Metro subway car doors.
The entertainers had showed up on time and had taken extra time to banter with the audience.
"Let me tell you what I've been up to for the last few years," Carn said to the women in the audience.
"I've been to school, and I've learned a few things." Then she broke out into her hit song, "Love Don't Love Nobody."
Even policemen were able to sit back on their motorscooters and enjoy the show, content in knowing that at least in Anacostia a U.S. Park Police horse has never dropped dead of a heart attack while trying to control an unruly crowd.