The Marvin Gaye Amphitheater, as it's called, makes a fine place to sit a spell and reflect on, well, you know, what's going on.

The amphitheater is just a few blocks from where the singer grew up in Northeast Washington, in a park that has discarded Jersey barriers on which children have painted flowers and trees and left their palm prints in primary colors. There are words of wisdom, too.

"Stop the violence. The time is now," reads one. "Keep our place clean. No drugs," says another.

The messages could have come straight from the album "What's Going On," a live version of which Gaye recorded May 1, 1972, at the Kennedy Center. For decades now, whenever war is looming, "What's Going On" begins a slow rise up the radio station play list.

In Gaye's park, you can almost hear him singing, We don't need to escalate . . . for only love can conquer hate.

Of course, the song is not just about war. It's also about warring souls. For Gaye believed that what's going on inside us inevitably becomes manifest in the world. And vice versa.

Yesterday, in front of a liquor store at Division Avenue and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, just a few yards from the park, there was love but mostly for what was in those brown paper bags -- bringing to mind lyrics from other songs on the album.

Flying high in the friendly sky without ever leavin' the ground. But not high enough to ease those inner-city blues.

"Look around. This is a neglected neighborhood," said Evelyn, who described herself as self-employed in a "do anything you want" sort of way. "Vacant houses, abandoned cars. Forgotten seniors. No jobs."

Sad tomorrows.

Sharon, a cook, sipped a beer and said: "We are scared -- of the police, of these crazy people. First we didn't know where the sniper was going to strike next, and now we don't know what Bush is gonna do."

Panic is spreading, God knows where we're heading.

For years, the parkland that became Gaye's amphitheater was a haven for winos and drug addicts. Neighbors had nicknamed it "Needle Park." When civic activist Geraldine Adams first came up with the idea for a community tribute to Gaye in 1989, some of Gaye's admirers objected.

"People didn't want to dishonor Marvin Gaye by attaching his name to a place like that," recalled Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks & People, a nonprofit group that rehabilitates neighborhood parks.

But Adams and Coleman prevailed. After all, the mission of Parks & People is so very Marvinesque: to reconnect people with the land and use the land to reconnect people with one another. The Gaye Amphitheater was dedicated this summer after about 4,000 volunteers cleaned up the place.

More than 7,000 bags of garbage were collected. About 2,000 hypodermic needles were picked up. And 26 abandoned cars were hauled away, including one that contained a body.

Mercy, mercy me.

And yet, as great as beautifying the park has been, much of the surrounding area looks the same. Garbage and needles are showing signs of a comeback.

The most obvious sign of change, ironically, is the ongoing demolition of East Capitol Dwellings, the housing complex where Marvin Gaye grew up. And as was the case with the destruction of so many Duke Ellington landmarks, the prospect of losing Gaye's house has barely caused a stir.

"The problem is a loss of a sense of stewardship," said Wanda Aikens, an after-school coordinator at Lucy Moten Elementary in Southeast. Aikens grew up in the neighborhood and knew Marvin Gaye. "Too many people just don't know their history and haven't realized that they have the option of making their community as nice as they want it to be."

There is certainly truth in that.

Asked what Marvin Gaye meant to them, Chris, a security guard, and Anthony, who does "community service," paused as they walked through the park.

"He represents money," Chris said.

Anthony smiled and sang, "Let's get it on." He said, "That's all I know, except that he got shot by his father."

You could almost hear Gaye holler, see him throw up both his hands.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com