A feud over a D.C. park pits one man against his neighbors
By Paul Schwartzman,
Patrick Blais had been president of his Northwest Washington community park for a year when his doorbell rang at 9:45 on a Saturday night.
Outside was a self-styled community activist, an African American whom Blais had never met: Marvin A. Rich.
Rich, accompanied by two women, came to launch another salvo in a neighborhood spat that has turned ugly enough to draw the attention of police commanders and advisers to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
The dispute could be viewed as a clash of familiar antagonists — gentrifiers vs. old-timers, whites vs. blacks. While some of that friction exists, the conflict is more convoluted and bizarre, pitting one fixated man against his infuriated neighbors. Naturally, both sides have hired attorneys.
Blais, a white corporate executive, remembers Rich telling him in his living room that night that Blais was not the true president of Crispus Attucks Park, nestled at the center of a block of rowhouses in Bloomingdale.
“I own the park,” Rich pronounced, according to Blais.
Blais said that a not-for-profit organization owns the park and that it had elected him president.
“No,” Rich replied. “I’m the president.” He described himself as “the founder,” adding, “I report to a higher board.”
Rich confirmed Blais’s account, except he said he never told Blais he owned the park and doesn’t remember any reference to a higher board.
Blais asked Rich and the women to leave, and they complied. But they kept up their campaign for control of the park, a quest that Blais and his neighbors allege in a lawsuit is racially charged and driven by intimidation and fraud — charges Rich denies.
Blais and his allies sought help from police and city hall, both of which refused to intervene. The reason: District documents in which the park’s president is listed as none other than Marvin A. Rich.
Blais and Rich are suing each other in D.C. Superior Court, each claiming control of the Crispus Attucks Development Corp., which has owned the park under one name or another since the 1970s.
“I was here first, I grew up here, I’m from here,” Rich, 53, said in an interview. “They’re fake. They’re pirates. They should have patches over their eyes.”
Blais and his allies dismiss such statements as fable. Where, they ask, was Rich when they were raising money, organizing yard sales, planting irises? Where was he when they turned an asphalt jumble into a lush vista?
“Marvin Rich and his family are disrespecting the park, with impunity,” said Blais, who is also suing Rich’s daughter and girlfriend. “It’s a laughable fraud.”
Burbling beneath the dispute are the jagged passions of a rapidly changing neighborhood. A decade ago, Bloomingdale’s population was 90 percent black. Since then, an influx of young professionals has made it 30 percent white.
John Salatti, a white Bloomingdale civic leader, said Rich has long been consumed with the shift. At various points, Salatti said, residents have complained about Rich driving his truck through the neighborhood blaring speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think it’s a matter of identity,” Salatti said. “The neighborhood has changed from his heyday. He’s losing his place.”
Rich doesn’t see it that way. He said he has “no problem” with the more recent arrivals, “as long as they develop my community.”
One point everyone agrees on is that Rich was there at the beginning, when the property that became Crispus Attucks Park was a concrete wasteland, a place kids referred to as the “Cave Yard.”
The idea is planted
The phone company owned the land from 1910 until the early 1970s. The company left behind a vacant brick building that inspired neighborhood leaders to start a community center offering activities such as music and photography.
Richard Sowell, the center’s leader, told a Washington Post reporter in 1978 that he got the idea from Rich, then a teenager who had grown up a block away, one of 12 children of a D.C. transit worker. Sowell managed Crispus Attucks, named for the African American who was among the citizens killed by British troops at the Boston Massacre in 1770. But Rich was “the guy who held the keys and opened the doors,” said Garry Clark, an African American who grew up in Bloomingdale. “That was his baby.”
After an auspicious start, the center lost funding and staff. A massive fire in 1990 devastated the building, and the property became a nest for junkies, prostitutes and abandoned cars.
By 1998, when Marilyn Lashley, a Howard University professor, moved to the block, the city had begun foreclosing on the property. Residents tried to contact the board, but it had not met in eight years. They held an election and created a new board, which set out to turn the concrete into a park.
When the board purchased 10 trees for planting, Lashley said, Rich and Sowell brought kids to “dig up the trees.” “They harassed us,” said Lashley, 64, who is black. “Marvin and Rick were saying they were opposed to white people moving in, and we reminded them that blacks lived here, too.”
Rich denies ordering trees dug up and said he never expressed opposition to whites moving in. Sowell died in the early 2000s.
Rich, according to Lashley and others, did nothing to help build the park. He was not around, they say, when they organized teenagers to form the “Yard Squad,” cutting grass and landscaping for pay.
“That’s what galls me,” said Tyrone Goodwyn, 51, an African American IT director and a park board member. “Marvin says white people took the park, and he needs to take it back for the kids. We’re already doing it.”
About a year ago, recalled Kevin Caldwell, a researcher who is white, Rich drove onto the grass blasting Peter Frampton music. When Caldwell asked him to lower the volume, Rich yelled “that we shouldn’t be in the park,” Caldwell said. Rich, he said, called them “card-carrying members of the KKK.”
Rich confirmed the confrontation, although he said the neighbors tried to intimidate him. Asked about the KKK reference, Rich said, “They probably are.” Then: “I don’t remember. I can’t say I didn’t.”
Tim Clark, a black community leader in Bloomingdale, said he sympathizes with Rich because of his role in the creation of Crispus Attucks. But he has asked Rich to refrain from derogatory remarks.
“He’s making it easy for them not to include him,” Clark said.
One night, after neighbors called police because Rich had driven on the grass, an officer brought Blais a copy of a document that Rich had shown them. It was a “confirmatory deed,” processed in February, stating that Rich replaced Lashley as Crispus Attucks’s “signatory officer” in 2003.
Lashley said no such transfer ever occurred.
Blais then learned that Rich had filed papers with the District declaring himself president of Crispus Attucks. At a civic association meeting, a spectator taped Rich several times referring to the park as “my land” and saying, “Ya’ll want to go hang out on my land, I don’t care.”
Blais met and exchanged e-mails with police and District officials to complain about Rich, only to be told that no one could intervene. “The Executive Branch . . . was not designed or authorized to ultimately rule on disputes of this nature,” Stephen Glaude, the mayor’s director of community affairs, wrote to Blais.
Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes wrote in an e-mail: “Mpd unfortunately cannot move mr rich for he has a permit . . . sorry.” Groomes wrote that police assigned to Bloomingdale have “been made aware of Mr. Rich.”
Police have known of Rich since 1981, when he was arrested on charges of petit larceny. It was the first of more than 10 arrests, according to court records. Nearly every time, the charges were dismissed.
In an interview, Rich said police harassed him and his family. His sister, Tanya, then 23 and pregnant, was killed with her 3-year-old daughter in 1991 when a police cruiser smashed into her car.
In 2009, Rich was found guilty of assaulting an officer. A judge ordered a psychological evaluation, during which Rich could not say which schools he attended or “the last grade he had completed,” according to the report. The psychologist described Rich as “alert and marginally cooperative” but said his answers were “at times illogical, tangential, and contained paranoid and persecutory content.”
During a second examination, Rich kept mentioning Crispus Attucks. At one point, he referred to his “long-term project” of finding a statue that “somehow dealt with Crispus Attucks.” Rich, the therapist wrote, “returned to this topic whenever there was even a one or two second pause.”
No one budging
From the bench, D.C. Superior Court Judge Peter Arno Krauthamer suggests mediation to resolve the lawsuits. One side needs to give a little, he says. The other side, too.
Blais won’t budge. Nor Rich. Witnesses come and go. The morning becomes the late afternoon.
“We’re done, right?” the judge asks.
Outside, Blais says, “Just because you say you’re president of Coke, and you file fake papers to prove it, doesn’t mean you’re president of Coke.”
Rich talks of the newcomers in his neighborhood.
“They don’t want to deal with Marvin Rich,” he says. “They should be working with me.”
Then: “They’re going to have to hire some better lawyers.”
And then: “I can hear him from his grave.”
He does not identify whose voice he hears.
The voice tells him, he says, “You’re not going to let it go that easy.”