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Growing up in Deanwood, RonDell Pooler saw the green spaces near his family’s home as “the woods.”
“I didn’t look at it as a park at that age,” the 32-year-old Washington Parks & People field coordinator says.
Watts Branch Park. Needle Park. Marvin Gaye Park.
The 1.6-mile-long stretch of greenery along the Watts Branch stream in Ward 7 has taken on many identities since its half-hearted founding in the 1930s to its well-intentioned rededication in the 1960s, and from its descent into a notorious drug haven in the 1990s to its rebirth into what now has the potential to be one of D.C.’s greatest parks.
This latest revival began in earnest fourteen years ago, when Washington Parks & People brought what it had learned at Malcolm X Park, a federal park pulled from the grips of drugs and violence, to Watts Branch.
Marvin Gaye Park has died and been reborn again and again and again.
Before the 1930s, the section of Northeast surrounding the Watts Branch stream, about half of which is in D.C., was primarily used for farming. The National Capital Park and Planning Commission proposed building a linear park along the flood-prone stream in 1920, and work got underway in the 1930s.
By the 1960s, the park had turned into an “eyesore, a dump for discarded refrigerators, dead cars, and other junk,” as a Washington Post article from the time put it. At the urging of a third-grade student from Lincoln Heights, who wrote her a letter, First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson made the park part of her beautification campaign, using $110,000 in funds from Laurance S. Rockefeller to mow the grass, plant new greenery, and line the streambed with stone. “Instead of gritty banks, weeds, and garbage, eight acres of a parkway in Northeast Washington that has been ignored for years have been completely relandscaped,” another Post piece stated.
Johnson herself visited the park for the 1966 rededication. Dennis Chestnut, a lifelong resident of Ward 7, was there. “It really was a great improvement,” the 66-year-old says.
But after the 1968 riots, the neighborhoods near the park as well as the park itself became neglected “in a lot of ways,” Chestnut says. “A lot of people moved out of the area, those that could afford to,” he says. “A lot of businesses left.”
An article in the Post written a few months after the riots questioned whether Johnson’s progress would last, noting vandalism in Watts Branch by “ ‘carloads of teenagers’ who held beer parties there this summer, littering the area, tore up paving stones and threw them in the creek, smashed soft drink bottles, lit fires in the garbage cans, and covered preschool playground equipment with graffiti.”
In the early 1970s, control of the park was transferred from the National Park Service to D.C., and in 1977, the city received $500,000 in federal funds for Watts Branch improvements. A bike trail was constructed based on a community-developed plan the following year.
But the park continued its downward spiral into the 1980s as the crack epidemic swallowed the city. A 1995 Post article noted “piles of freshly dumped trash” in the “neglected” Watts Branch. “I don’t care how many staff you have—you can’t fight this stuff constantly,” a Barry official told the paper on a tour of the park. “There’s got to be a community consciousness.”
In 2000, three D.C. health inspectors studying aquatic life in Watts Branch were robbed at gunpoint near the Maryland border. One was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Washington Parks & People arrived the following year.
They began as Friends of Meridian Hill, a community group that formed in 1990 after the murder of a young boy in the park, which was overrun by drug dealers and covered in graffiti. Friends of Meridian Hill mobilized hundreds of people from the nearby neighborhoods to help clean up the park and plant trees and flowers. Four years later, President Bill Clinton presented the group with a leadership award in the park they helped reclaim and revitalize.
In 1997, a national foundation asked Friends of Meridan Hill to use what they learned at Malcolm X to create a model that could be used in other suffering parks. An official from the D.C. Recreation Department told the group that Ward 7’s Watts Branch Park “was the worst, by far,” Coleman recalls. A visit confirmed the dire assessment. Coleman says they found “massive dump piles everywhere.”
“I thought I had seen everything in disgusting park conditions, but I had never seen a park remotely close to this level of abject neglect and unfettered abuse,” he says.
But the group also found residents who cared about the park, who remembered better times and wanted to see Watts Branch and the stream that runs through it cleaned up. They asked the neighborhood kids what they wanted to see—a bike trail, an amphitheater, a safe, clean place to play—and they turned the wish list into a call to action. The call helped Washington Parks & People get a grant to launch its Down by the Riverside Campaign in 2001, and the revitalization began.
Coleman says there are parallels between the two parks, but “also some real differences.” The scale of the problems at Marvin Gaye—the dozens of abandoned cars, thousands of discarded needles, millions of pounds of trash—made the work at Malcolm X seem “like a walk in the park.”
“This has taken everything that we have,” Coleman says of the Marvin Gaye rehabilitation efforts, even though Washington Parks & People is a “mightier” organization than it was 25 years ago. “This area was heavily abandoned. There was abandonment that was happening around Malcolm X, but nothing that was happening on the scale over here.”
The park as it exists today begins at Minnesota and Nannie Helen Burroughs avenues in a grassy area with benches called Lady Bird Johnson Meadows. There, a six-foot circular, mosaic portrait of Marvin Gaye begins the dedicated trail. It runs east along the stream through quiet neighborhoods and past the D.C. government’s Lederer Youth Garden before connecting with the sidewalk on Nannie Helen Burroughs. The trail picks up again near the school founded by the avenue’s namesake and continues to the Watts Branch Playground and Marvin Gaye Recreation Center on the Maryland line.
For Washington Parks & People, the park’s future is deeply connected to urban agriculture. They run the grant-funded D.C. Green Corps, an eight-week training program that prepares participants for green careers while paying them a stipend. Part of that training takes place at the Marvin Gaye Greening Center, a one-acre farm and native tree nursery near the Riverside Center run in partnership with D.C. Urban Greens. “There’s a feeling of it being a park as well as a farm, and a training place as well as a real generator of food,” Coleman says.
Pooler, who grew up near the center, says he stumbled into the Green Corps program when he was looking for a job a few years ago. He was interested in landscaping, and even though he wasn’t sure he wanted a green career, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to get paid while he looked for a job. Two months in, he started to enjoy himself.
He’s now a full-time staff member for Washington Parks & People, running the field training and volunteer programs. Pooler believes in giving people the skills to grow their own food, especially in areas like Ward 7 where access to fresh produce is limited. “You have people my age who have been eating… fast food their entire life,” he says.
Mark Bey apologizes as we meet on the corner of 44th and Gault streets NE. It’s two days before Memorial Day, a fact he didn’t realize when he scheduled a volunteer cleanup of the nearby section of Watts Branch. Armed with a litter picker, he’s the only one out at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday to remove trash from the stream.
He leads me down to the streambed and points out a natural litter trap covered in plastic bottles and other trash.
“We’re fighting a losing battle if we can’t get people, the larger community to do something,” he says of the littering. “You can bring 50 people out here, but you have hundreds of people throwing stuff on the ground every day… You’re just going to be walking up a hill of feathers.”
Bey is new to the fight to keep Marvin Gaye Park clean—he’s been holding cleanups for the past three or four months—but he’s loved nature since he was a child growing up in Oxon Hill.
After working two jobs, Bey, 42, decided to use his savings and take a year or two off. He’s using the time to get his campaign for a “Cleaner Ward 7” underway. “For years, I said I needed to do something about certain things,” he says. “Finally I decided just to go ahead and do it.”
In addition to scheduling cleanup events across the Northeast ward and posting updates and photos on his website (“People need to see how bad this is”), Bey wants to enlist kids from D.C.’s Summer Jobs Program to help pick up trash, seek out volunteers from the community, and perform free showcases in the park. He also wants to recruit students and adults in need of community service hours.
“I’m hoping to get some nature nuts like myself,” he says.
The heart of Marvin Gaye Park, off the 600 block of Division Avenue NE, is surrounded by single family homes, vacant buildings, a Chinese carryout, and liquor and corner stores. That section of the trail curves around H.D. Woodson, the D.C. public high school that underwent a $102 million renovation a few years ago.
Up the hill, there’s Lincoln Heights, a public housing complex built in the 1940s that was tapped for mixed-used redevelopment as part of the New Communities Initiative. But a decade later, none of the 440 derelict apartments have been torn down. Thirty-two families have received new housing, as Washington City Paper reported earlier this year, and another 50 will be offered units at the recently announced, all-affordable Deanwood Hills.
Around the corner, there’s the Strand, a movie theater that opened in 1928. It’s been vacant since 1959. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty slated the building, located at Division and Nannie Helen Burroughs, for restaurant, retail, and office redevelopment in 2008. Six years later, then-Mayor Vince Gray set aside $1 million in the fiscal year 2015 budget to reinforce the empty Strand’s facade. The project has yet to attract any tenants.
Near the park’s Maryland border, where the playground and rec center are being renovated as part of a $14 million project, the city broke ground on the mixed-use phase of the Capitol Gateway development in March. It will include 312 affordable units, retail including a Walmart, and space for a restaurant. Capitol Gateway is being built on the sites of East Capitol Dwellings, Capitol View Plaza, and Capitol View Plaza II, public housing developments torn down in the early 2000s as part of a HOPE VI project. In total, around 1,100 units were demolished. According to the D.C. Housing Authority, 379 units have been replaced to date.
Nice parks are good for property values, a seemingly no-brainer impact economists call “hedonic value.” Residential properties in D.C. within 500 feet of a park were valued at $24 billion by the Trust for Public Land in 2009, and parks added $1.2 billion to that value, according to the report. Malcolm X Park, the Trust wrote, “provides extra value to the thousands of dwelling units surrounding it, and to the city itself through higher property tax receipts.”
The added value can be seen in Washington Parks & People’s grand headquarters, located on 15th Street beside the park in a former embassy. Purchased in 1999 for $760,000, the Josephine Butler Parks Center is currently valued at more than $3.4 million. Home prices in surrounding Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights are similarly high compared with other parts of the city, especially neighborhoods east of the Anacostia.