Washington fans of Marvin Gaye have had reason to wonder what's going on.
One of the most innovative and edgy voices of rhythm and blues in the 1960s and 1970s, Gaye was a mainstay of the Motown sound. But the District was his hometown, and his fans want something here named in his honor.
That could happen soon. A resolution to change the name of Watts Branch Park to Marvin Gaye Park was discussed at a D.C. Council meeting last month and is likely to pass in the near future. It's a long swath of land that winds through Northeast, and it played a prominent role at the beginning of Gaye's musical journey.
After his family was forcibly relocated from its home on I Street SW so the building could be demolished, Gaye grew up in East Capitol Dwellings, a public housing project near the park. He played an early career gig at a venue overlooking the park called the Crystal Lounge. He went on to record dozens of chart-topping songs before his father shot him to death in 1984 at age 44.
"He was the only major Motown singer to sing about the environment. He also sang about the injustice and struggle of the inner city," said Stephen W. Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks and People, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public parks in the District.
The Watts name, on the other hand, belonged to a slaveholder and conflicts with two other stream parks in Maryland bearing the same name, the Department of Parks and Recreation's large parks administrator, Michael Lucy, recently told the D.C. Council.
"Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest musical legends ever to come out of Washington, yet he has not yet been honored in any lasting way in his hometown," Lucy told the council. "The Watts Branch greenway corridor does not have any official name posted anywhere on its length. Apparently taken from an early slaveholder, and replacing earlier historic names for the stream, the Watts name was used for a never-realized plan to install the Watts Run Parkway in this location."
The park itself has long been thought of as a series of unrelated parks because of its size and disjointed nature. Residents have been calling different areas "Needle Park," "Greenfield," "the Thicket," "Ladybird Meadows" and "Campbell's Green." Needle Park, where Coleman said Washington Parks and People removed 7,500 used hypodermic needles since 2001, also is known as Heritage Green. The Thicket is called the King Nature Sanctuary because the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a speech there in 1961 to round up people for a sit-in at a downtown restaurant.
"We made signs with each of these section names along with the Marvin Gaye name in anticipation of the renaming," Coleman said.
Recently, about 135 United Way volunteers teamed up with residents and volunteers from nine other groups to install signs, plant native trees and shrubs, put a urethane coat on paneling in the Riverside Center, clean up streambeds and an outdoor classroom, paint anti-dumping barriers, finish a mural in honor of King and measure the trail so walkers can chart their progress.
Watts Branch Park once had a reputation as the worst park in Washington, according to Coleman. Because of jurisdictional confusion brought on by the park's being federally owned but run by the city, neither the D.C. police nor the U.S. Park Police have been patrolling it. Crime once was rampant in the park. It's still a problem, but it's not as bad as it was, he said.
City officials acknowledge that the park was neglected for a long time. The Department of Parks and Recreation wouldn't remove trash because a map showed streets running through the park, making it the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works. The Department of Public Works wouldn't remove trash because the streets don't exist and the department doesn't remove trash from parks.
For 41/2 years, Washington Parks and People has been improving the park in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation and with the help of government funding and private grants. Volunteers removed trash, planted trees and installed lighting, trash cans and bollards to keep vehicles out. They've been busy building playgrounds, an amphitheater, trails, a fitness course and a nature center. They bought the old Crystal Lounge and are turning it into a community center called the Riverside Center. They replaced a heroin market with a children's farmer's market.
Despite the park's long history of neglect, Coleman hopes it will rise to greatness, as did its new namesake, Marvin Gaye.
"He never forgot where he came from," Coleman said.
And Coleman doesn't want the city to forget the park. "The park was never finished. It has a sorry history of not being taken care of," he said.
He added, "This is part of D.C. that . . . most of the city has forgotten."