People-watching paradise could be in peril

Is a people-watching
paradise in peril?

In a changing city, Meridian Hill Park’s
human mosaic has shifted

Published on August 16, 2015

Sunlight had nearly abandoned the packed District park when a bespectacled Pakistani-born patent examiner reached the top of a fabric ribbon secured to an oak limb. Dangling 15 feet above the earth, he wrapped his feet in the yellow cloth, raised his head and spread his arms wide.

“Peter Pan!” a passerby shouted at the 28-year-old.

Behind him — on a lawn filled with picnickers, people watchers and a 6-foot-2 guy wearing nothing but daisy-white dreadlocks and a loincloth — a young black woman nervously inched across a slackline, each hand on the shoulders of two lanky white men serving as her spotters. Nearby, a little blond boy in a Captain America T-shirt mimicked the elegant dance-fighting of two capoeiristas. And all around, hula hoopers gyrated, dancers grooved, chalk artists sketched, yogis stretched, children toddled, dog walkers strolled and joggers darted.

This is Meridian Hill Park on a summer Sunday. Fueled by the beat of its renowned weekly drum circle, the 12-acre stretch of fountains and trees a mile and a half north of the White House serves, in a changing and sometimes divided city, as a gathering place for all the District’s disparate tribes: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, immigrant and local, gay and straight, boring and bizarre.

Heartbeat of the city: Meridian Hill's drum circle

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But some who have watched the park evolve for decades worry that the flood of one group moving to the area — young white people — will eventually drain Meridian Hill of its distinctive diversity.

Like much of the nation’s capital, the Northwest neighborhoods that surround the park have undergone a rapid demographic shift in the past decade, with blacks and Hispanics moving out.

“Yuppified,” one woman said as she and her girlfriend watched more than 50 people unfurl yoga mats over the grass.

Jane Adams, who has lived near the park since 1959, has witnessed the change. A white woman married to a black man, the 68-year-old remembers when she was the only Caucasian on her block. Now, every time she walks through what many people call Malcolm X Park, she sees more faces that look like hers than her husband’s and wonders, “Where the hell am I?”

“Over the last five years,” she said, “it’s completely shifted.”

[From the archive: A walk in the park with a past]

Adams and others are quick to acknowledge that Meridian Hill is safer than ever.

And for now, the park stands as a testament to diversity, evidenced by the human mosaic swirling across its landscape each Sunday. “A healthy balance,” one old-timer called its mix of old D.C. and new D.C.

But with Washington’s property values still climbing, the aging mom-and-pop shops still closing and the pricey new apartment buildings still opening, the people who know the park best question whether such a balance will last.

How long, they wonder, can Meridian remain this city’s back yard?

Umair Ahsan hangs from an aerial silk suspended from a tree at Meridian Hill Park. Joining the acrobatic action are yoga practitioners Lauren Danella, left, and Lindsey Fong. Meanwhile, Alexis Pearce and Jamie Meikle go for a more relaxed vibe on a stone, and Nzali Mwanza-Shannon plays in a hammock near her father, Matthew Shannon-Browne.

‘You see everything here’

She can still recall what the taxi driver said when he pulled up to her new apartment building two blocks from the park 15 years ago: “You live here alone?”

Back then, Rebecca Bertothy, who’s in her early 40s, spotted needles on the park’s ground and men having sex in its bushes. She also saw people sell drugs as well as Social Security and green cards.

It’s much tamer now, Bertothy explained as she sat on a bench along the lawn, her Nook open to the novel “Big Little Lies.”

In a shady spot near her, an attorney hosted a birthday for his 1-year-old son. A man spare of teeth argued aloud with himself on a bench as he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. And Sara Guevara, 5, squawked at a flock of birds on the lawn; she and her Colombian-born mother, Laura, stroll to the park most Sundays.

Bertothy comes to read and walk her Shih Tzu-cavalier mix, Zoey — and, of course, for the spectacle.

“You see everything here,” she said.

The park’s varied and sometimes tumultuous history would have made the welcoming, inclusive place it is today hard to foresee.

Thomas Jefferson unsuccessfully campaigned for the Earth’s prime meridian to run through the area — which is how the hill earned its name — before a prominent resident pushed for the White House to be relocated there and, when that failed, for the Lincoln Memorial to be built at the site.

Construction began on Meridian Hill exactly a century ago but, slowed by funding issues and World War I, it didn’t gain status as a formal park for two decades.

In the 1960s, around the same time the drum circle formed, civil rights activists unofficially named the space for Malcolm X, marking one of many times the park has symbolized, or hosted, dissent.

In the past 40 years, people have gathered there to protest alcohol, war, nuclear weapons, Wall Street, the World Bank, Mitt Romney, U.S. policy in El Salvador, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, CIA involvement in Nicaragua, the government of Rhodesia, apartheid, Zionism, police brutality and former Iranian shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — and many others have come to support communism, socialism, anarchy, feminism, gay rights, immigrant rights, Native American rights, the homeless, the unification of Africa, Bradley Manning and former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

When the Mount Pleasant riots erupted in 1991 after a D.C. police officer shot a Latino man, the park turned into a staging area for law enforcement that The Washington Post described then as an “armed camp.”

[District marks 20th anniversary of Mount Pleasant protests]

Steve Coleman, who has lived nearby for 32 years, remembers when walking through Meridian Hill at the wrong time of night was a “death-defying” act.

Now the head of the nonprofit organization Washington Parks and People, he and his colleagues, along with the National Park Service, have been instrumental in Meridian Hill’s renaissance.

But, like Adams, his perspective on its evolution is complicated.

“There are ways that it’s like heaven on earth,” he said, “but there are things that are decidedly missing, too.”

Even on Sundays, Coleman said, he seldom sees the large African American families who once regularly populated the park. Some black teens and older minority residents have also abandoned it.

So how, then, does Meridian preserve the diversity it still has?

Outside the park, he said, the city must expand the area’s 1,000-plus units of affordable housing. And inside the park, he wants a playground built.

[Pondering the meaning of changing D.C. demographics]

Coleman understands that many people won’t like the latter idea. Meridian, a National Historic Landmark, is an architectural wonder, with an Italian-style lower garden, French-inspired fountains and a concrete surface speckled with pebbles that were specially selected for their size and color.

But, Coleman often asks, is the park an artifact, or a place for the community to gather?

On Sundays, he said, that’s an easy question to answer.

Wendy Harper, right, takes part in a drum circle, a weekly tradition at Meridian Hill Park dating back to around the 1960s.

Here come the brides

Whiffs of marijuana blended with the smell of earth and incense as the crowd swelled.

Two dozen members of an AcroYoga group had begun to form majestic human sculptures atop one another. The drum circle pounded out a rendition of the “Sesame Street” theme song as a barefoot masseur gave back rubs to people in a massage chair and a woman twirled a wooden rifle like a baton, launching it 20 feet high.

Another group tossing balls and pins in the air propped a sign in the grass: “Free Juggling Lessons.” Not far away, a 6-year-old stood behind a lemonade stand: “50 sents.”

Part of what makes Meridian Hill’s scene so special is its size. The thin, rectangular park located between 15th and 16th streets NW is about 1/25 the size of the Mall, which pushes most people seeking solitude to join the book readers on the lower level’s sloping hillside. On the upper portion, the price of admission includes sharing limited shade and space with strangers as well as their kids, pets, balls, blankets and bicycles.

But that forced mingling is also why people come — Meridian at its sweaty, Sunday peak is like an outdoor version of a throbbing nightclub.

“There’s not this weird undercurrent of racial divide,” explained Quadira Dantro, a 35-year-old federal worker, as she painted a canvas of white flowers. “It’s just a bunch of people doing weird [stuff].”

People often compare the park to a zoo, but that’s not quite right. Zoos are places of confinement, and this is a destination defined by freedom — which is, in part, why its foundation is shifting.

On the park’s far north end, a man with gray in his beard and a Rastafarian cap on his head sat near three young women sipping sauvignon blanc and sharing their disdain for Donald Trump.

The once-regular soccer game — played mostly by older Latinos — has faded. Instead, a pack of two dozen multi-ethnic millennials competed in a kickball game and, afterward, celebrated with cheesecake from Trader Joe’s.

Even the drummers’ ranks showed signs of transition.

A young, shaggy-haired white man — his T-shirt reading “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” — erupted in a percussion solo, breaking one of the circle’s unwritten rules. Afrika Abney, a native Washingtonian and tender of the circle, snapped at him.

“Hey,” she shouted. “You going to play with us?”

Change, of course, is inevitable, and more of it may yet come to Meridian. But as the sun set and the lamps flickered on, a sense of eternity fell over the park, as if its denizens would never leave.

The drummers kept pounding and the slack-liners kept balancing. The patent examiner hung upside down from his yellow aerial silk, and a man juggled a pair of LED-lit balls. A boy spun on the lawn, bubbles flowing from a wand in his hand.

Then, two women in white lace wedding dresses walked up to the circle, holding high their bouquets of wild flowers and birds of paradise.

Israeli-born Noah Drori, 26, and Brazilian-born Sandra Hinderliter, 28, had just gotten married, exchanging vows and rings in front of family and friends.

Now, the newlyweds clasped hands, smiled and, as the beat continued, they danced.

Ben Drexler practices a performance art called poi, which is among the eclectic pastimes that have taken root in Meridian Hill Park.

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