You might find people dancing together, mourning together or raising their fists toward the sky together.
Together. That’s an important word when talking about the lot. In other neighborhoods, there are plenty of outdoor places that during non-pandemic times bring together children, the elderly and everyone in between. But in Anacostia, a historically neglected neighborhood of mostly Black residents, the Secret Garden is one of the only places to do that.
It’s a community hub in a neighborhood that doesn’t have many — and right now, those who have come to depend on it are worrying together.
In recent months, as they tell it, the fate of the lot has become uncertain and lies in large part in the hands of one man — a developer who just received a presidential pardon from Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, in one of his final moves before leaving office, Trump granted a pardon to Douglas Jemal, absolving the 79-year-old of a 2006 conviction for wire fraud. In a statement from the White House identifying the 143 people who were granted clemency, Jemal is described as “an American businessman and philanthropist credited with rebuilding many urban inner cities in the United States.”
In the days since, various media outlets, including The Washington Post, have published articles to let people know more about the real estate magnate.
But less than five miles from the White House, in a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, people had already spent months thinking about him. The people who built and run the Secret Garden say they were informed several months ago over the phone, and later by letter, that Jemal owned the 3,900-square-foot plot and wanted them to vacate it.
They question his claim to the land and say they are ready to fight for it if needed. But they also say they hope it won’t come to that. They hope the developer who has been behind major projects across the city will allow the community to keep control over that space.
“How do you plead to someone like that?” Brenda H. Jones, a 73-year-old who has spent most of her life in Southeast Washington, says on a recent afternoon.
How do you show him how much that space is needed? she says.
Jones volunteers at the Secret Garden and has seen it used as a meeting place for men and women who have returned home from prison, as a performance space for UniverSoul Circus, and as the site of birthday parties, holiday giveaways and various types of concerts.
“When my granddaughter came for summer camp, she got a chance to get onstage with one of the bands, and boy, did she love it,” Jones says. Her granddaughter, now 8, was 6 at the time. “You couldn’t hardly get her off the stage. She was just dancing away.”
Requests for comment sent to Jemal and people who work with him went unanswered. But according to the recent Post article, at his sentencing, he told a judge, “I care about buildings that have been abandoned and left alone. And I care about people who’ve been abandoned and left alone. I care very much about this adopted city of mine.”
What is happening in Anacostia is about a plot of land, but it is also about much more than that. It is impossible to talk about development in the city without acknowledging how it has changed not just the landscape, but also the population. Gentrification has caused visible segregation, pricing many Black residents out of neighborhoods they grew up in and pushing them into areas with fewer resources.
Residents who live east of the river don’t have a hospital nearby. They don’t have multiple grocery stores within walking distance. And they don’t have their choice of affordable outdoor venues that cater to children and adults.
None of that has been lost on the people who created the Secret Garden. They are the same people who helped lead the Don’t Mute D.C. movement.
“What we are doing is good for the city,” Ronald Moten, a longtime community activist, says. “This is the only place in a gentrifying Ward 8 that the community owns and the community feels is a part of them. And during covid, it’s the only safe place we have.”
He and two former gang members formed Check It Enterprises and, using funds from the city, purchased the three buildings in front of the Secret Garden. The group is working to turn the buildings into a go-go museum that will honor the District’s official music and serve as a place for residents to take classes, receive job training and hold community meetings.
When the group first started cleaning up the lot in 2010, there was no sign that anyone owned it or even cared about it, Moten says. He described it as overgrown with weeds, infested with rodents and filled with trash and needles from drug use.
Then in 2020, when the group went from renting a space in one of the buildings to owning them, Moten says, its members believed the lot was part of the property. The dispute about the Secret Garden was first reported in the District Dig in November.
Moten says the group would like to see Jemal give the lot to the community, but if he doesn’t, it is willing to buy it for a reasonable price.
“We just want him to do right by the people,” Moten says. “You got pardoned. Now, it’s time you pardon the people, and do the right thing.”
He says he remains hopeful that will happen. But just in case it doesn’t, he has created a Change.org petition and has talked to local lawmakers in case he needs to call on them to get involved.
After I reached out to council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) to get his thoughts on the issue, he sent this statement: “This long-unused space, hidden behind buildings in one of the most underserved corners of our city, has become a beloved community space. I hope that Check-It and the landowner can find a compromise that is in the best interest of the community.”
He’s right. It is in the “best interest of the community” for the two sides to find a compromise.
But if they don’t, this isn’t a situation the rest of us can just shrug off as a private financial matter. The issues being addressed within that sliver of space are ones that affect us all. Among them: gun violence, joblessness, poverty, isolation and childhood hunger.
Whether or not we plan to step foot into that lot, we are in this together.
I have spent time in the Secret Garden. I have also pored over photos of events that have occurred there in the last few years, and they show not only what drew people into that space, but also what would be lost without it.
A fish fry that brought politicians and people together.
An Easter basket giveaway that left children grinning.
A poetry workshop.
A mask giveaway.
The go-go awards.
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