Four hundred residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Meridian Hill Park have declared themselves fans of the vandalized and neglected federal facility and say their goal is to restore it to its original splendor.

The Friends of Meridian Hill Inc. organized after a story in February in The Washington Post described damage to the elegant 78-year-old park's statuary and cascading fountain. The park's neighbors said they stayed outside its walled boundaries because of the drug dealers who had claimed its upper level.

At the time, the National Park Service said it had neither the budget nor the staff to protect or maintain the 12-acre facility, also known as Malcolm X Park, between 15th, 16th, Euclid and W streets NW.

The Friends group is negotiating an agreement with the Park Service to provide volunteer cleanup crews, sponsor events and staff a small office in the park.

Steve Coleman, founder of the group, said, "The only way to reclaim the park is to get people to use it."

To that end, he organized a cleanup for Earth Day, April 22. He said 100 people showed up despite heavy rain and filled 250 bags with trash and planted five dogwoods and dozens of red geraniums. Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. came by to encourage their efforts.

In a recent interview, Lujan said he had never heard of the park until he read the news story. He said he paid a visit to the park that same week.

"It was a bit shabby," he said. "Well, more than a bit -- It was shabby."

Lujan said that as he walked around the park, "a fellow came up and hung around right where I was looking. He didn't say anything. He seemed to be waiting for me to approach him."

Luhon said he was pretty sure the man was a drug dealer.

Coleman said his group has raised $5,000 and hopes to sponsor an encampment by Civil War reenactors this month and a concert for the Fourth of July. The group plans to lobby Congress for emergency funding of about $3 million for repairs to the park's plumbing and electrical systems. There are plans to finance a study of the historic plantings.

Rolland Swain, superintendent of federal parks in Northwest Washington, said he has been able to increase the number of maintenance crews working in the park. The extra attention was obvious when a reporter visited recently. The walks and steps were swept clean, new trash cans were placed on the grounds and large areas of the lawn were roped off for resodding.