For the ninth consecutive year, the Friends of Meridian Hill will have a Fourth of July celebration that provides one of the best seats in the District from which to watch the capital's fireworks extravaganza.
"This is the densest, most diverse part of the city, and we'll be celebrating July Fourth in the most multicultural part of the capital," said Steve Coleman, president of Friends of Meridian Hill and director of Washington Parks and People, which helps to revitalize inner-city parks. "This is America and everything that it is in a fun, relaxed way."
At one time, Meridian Hill Park attracted mainly white residents from upper Northwest Washington. Then it was a park that drew mostly blacks, after the 1967 riots on nearby 14th Street. By the '80s, it had become a no-man's land as crack cocaine dealers and prostitutes invaded its grassy esplanade, giving Meridian Hill the title of most violent national park in the Washington area.
But today, this gem of an inner-city park--reclaimed in 1990 by neighbors working with the National Park Service and U.S. Park Police--is everyone's playground.
"Everybody comes out, and there's no hassles," says Howard Coleman (no relation to Steve Coleman), the so-called mayor of Meridian Hill Park and one of the members of the neighborhood patrol who help rid the park of criminals. He has been visiting Meridian Hill for more than 40 years and still patrols the park in the early morning, afternoons and evenings and volunteers for the pre- and post-Fourth of July cleanup crew.
Meridian Hill, also known as Malcolm X Park, sits atop the steepest cliff surrounding the District, providing a commanding view of the fireworks shown by the Washington Monument. The park, 12 acres tucked within Italian Renaissance walls, is bounded by 16th, W, 15th and Euclid streets NW. It is known for its staircase fountain, French-style upper lawn and stately white oak trees.
Fourth of July activities include live music, readings of oratory and poetry, impromptu dancing by the adults, children waving sparklers, dogs romping after Frisbees and picnics galore. The music and readings take place beginning at 7:30 p.m., but people begin drifting into the park by midafternoon with picnic baskets to claim their fireworks-viewing spots.
The crowd has grown to about 3,000 recently. In the words of one organizer, it's a virtual Bruegel painting of the human tableaux that represents the adjacent neighborhoods of Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Shaw.
This year once again, a neighborhood child will read excerpts from Frederick Douglass's powerful oration on July 5, 1852, about the Negro struggle for justice. It is titled: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
"I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us," Douglass wrote. "The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
A recording will be played of Maya Angelou reading her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," which stresses the worthiness and equality of the variety of people and voices in this country. She wrote the piece and delivered it at President Clinton's first inauguration Jan. 20, 1993.
There also will be recorded excerpts played of the voices of Paul Robeson, President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Then the music begins on a weathered wooden stage erected on the southern end of the park to commemorate Meridian Hill's role as the first national park for the performing arts.
"It's like a huge block party," said Gloria DuBissette, a neighborhood resident who also uses Meridian Hill Park during the summer as a practice stage for her tiny taekwondo students. "People come out with food. There's picnics, fireworks, drummers, African American, Hispanic, Vietnamese. It's totally multicultural--more than downtown by the monument."
Long before the park went into ruin and then came back to life, Meridian Hill was the site of sunset concerts attended by people who came to watch the sunset over the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. That was in the 1840s, said Steve Coleman. Before and during World War II, the park also had summer concerts that drew performers such as the Von Trapp family singers of Austria.
The Fourth of July shows have always featured area musicians, from Bo Diddley Jr., nephew of the great Bo Diddley, to the D.C. Youth and Junior Orchestras, who one year played the 1812 Overture. This year's performer will be Moya, a District soul band.
U.S. Park Police Officer Edward Dutch, who grew up just south of Meridian Hill Park and remembers when the milkman and watermelon man delivered their goods to the neighborhood in horse-drawn carts, said today's Fourth of July festivities reflect the homeyness of the area.
"It's just the community: lots of kids, lots of families. It's like on the Mall, but smaller," Dutch said. "It doesn't matter what side of 16th Street they live on, people come in. It's a great viewpoint and things are in control."
CAPTION: From left, Nicola Bastian, Steve Coleman, John O'Leary, Joe Wyche and Joseph McRae plan the Meridian Hill event. "We'll be celebrating July Fourth in the most multicultural part of the capital," Coleman said.