In what is unofficially known as Adams Morgan's "Pigeon Park," benches shine with fresh paint and the grass is neatly cut -- a far cry from the rat- and trash-infested scene there a year ago. But a community group eager to rename and further improve the park says it is hindered because the land is federal property.
The park sits at the busy intersection of 16th Street, Columbia Road and Harvard Street NW, connecting Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant. The community group, Friends of Pigeon Park, was formed in early 2003 with the goal of revitalizing the park. Soon after, the group also took up the cause to name the park for Archbishop Oscar Romero, a priest murdered while saying Mass during El Salvador's civil war.
Andrea Broaddus, a member of the Friends group who was elected to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up the park, said the only indication that the park was federal property was a graffiti-marked sign proclaiming it part of Rock Creek Park.
In scheduling the park's first cleanup day in 2003, Broaddus learned that she would need to secure a federal permit for the event, as well as for the live music that she had planned in the park. "There was a lot more of a process than I anticipated," she said.
But with the National Park Service's cooperation, the cleanup day, held last June, resulted in newly stained benches, repaired slate walkways, improved landscaping and rat-proof trash cans.
Other efforts from the Friends of Pigeon Park (www.pigeonpark.org) met with less success. The group was offered a donation of a $2,500 Yoshino cherry tree from the National Main Street Center. According to Broaddus, the tree was not on a list of approved species for Rock Creek Park, so the donation had to be declined. "It would have been the only flowering tree in the park," she said.
The group also learned that grander plans, like putting a fountain or statue in the park, changing the lighting or creating a plaza, would need the approval of the federal government and the Commission of Fine Arts. "You have to go through all this bureaucracy just to get a fountain," said Leyda Molina, president of the Friends and owner of the Latin Jazz Alley nightclub.
The federal designation has also affected the group's plan to name the park for Romero, who was nominated for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against the war in El Salvador and whose slaying galvanized guerrilla forces there.
Because the park is federal property, an act of Congress is required to change the name. Doxie McCoy, spokeswoman for U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, said Norton has no immediate plans to introduce legislation changing the name because the Commemorative Works Act prohibits any National Park Service land in D.C. to be named for anybody who has not been dead for 25 years. Romero, who was killed on March 24, 1980, falls about one year short of the cutoff.
Technically, the park already has a name. Although there is no sign proclaiming it, the park is officially Rabaut Park, named for Louis Rabaut, a congressman from Michigan who died in 1961. Rabaut's family has given its blessing to a name change honoring Romero. The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions of Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights have also passed resolutions supporting the name change.
"I don't believe that there is a park in the District of Columbia which is named in honor of a Latino," said D.C. Councilman Jim Graham. "Certainly not one in Ward 1, where we have the home of the Latino and . . . Salvadoran community."
The Friends of Pigeon Park have not decided whether to wait for the 25-year anniversary or try to move the park out of federal jurisdiction. "I don't know what they think is going to be easier to accomplish in a short time frame," Broaddus said. "We'll take the path of least resistance, whatever it turns out to be."
Transferring jurisdiction from the federal government to the District would not require congressional approval, said Joe Cook of the National Park Service, but it would require an agreement among the District, the Park Service and the National Capitol Planning Commission. Terry Lee of the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department said that although transferring parks has been difficult in the past, the District has recently been granted jurisdiction over a few federal parks, such as Kingman Island near RFK Stadium.
Adrienne Coleman, superintendent of Rock Creek Park, said there is a good reason why all stand-alone parks along 16th Street NW are designated federal parks. Before the 1970s, she said, all parkland in Washington was federal. The federal government turned over many parks to the city, and "what the Park Service kept was anything that had national or historic significance," she said. "Sixteenth Street was designed to be a grand boulevard. When you look on either side, the idea is to see landscape that is consistent with the same design."
Regardless of what happens next, all involved agree that the park is much better off today than one year ago. It now receives consistent maintenance from the Park Service, including trash pickup and regular pruning. "It used to be something to avoid," said Steve Coleman, a member of the group. "There's been a whole night and day turnaround."