Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For roughly a year, artist Sarah Tooley had observed people coming and going from the green benches at the tiny triangular park at 14th and Ogden Streets in Columbia Heights. Through her back bedroom window, she watched the rhythms of the neighborhood take form.

The park had no name and no perks: No fountain. No statues. No flowers. Not even any grass, just a brick surface with some weeds poking through. And some drug-dealing Tooley says she was too naive to recognize at first. But at least there was the seating—until one day, even that disappeared.

Tooley took note of how people adjusted to life without the benches, hunching over by the curb while waiting for the bus or dragging over milk crates to sit on. Some leaned against cars, occasionally setting off their alarms.

“And you’d see people sitting under the tree, and then wiping dirt off their butts when they got up,” she says. “That’s when I was like, ugh, this is such an indignity. It just seemed ridiculous that some people in the city get seating, and some don’t.”

So began her mission to fill what she felt was a void in the tiny little park. Tooley decided she was going to bring the benches back. And, as an artist who had worked before creating murals with D.C. school children around the city, she would construct them herself: seven colored benches inscribed with people’s thoughts about the park.

Tooley saw the promise of a few new benches—a place for little old ladies to rest on their way home from the grocery, a spot for a quick lunch out of a Styrofoam container, a site to stop and watch the rest of the city speed by. She thought they would be welcome.

Tooley’s little corner of Columbia Heights moves to a less gentrified beat than the one at DC USA, just three blocks to the south. There are no big-box chains; here, the local businesses have names like CC’S liquor store and Pan Lourdes Coffee Shop.

The neighborhood park did have an unseemly side.

“There were times, especially during the summer, where someone might be drunkenly screaming about some quarrel with a lover, and a friend would be out there trying to calm them down,” Tooley says. Groups, she says, often “clumped” together late into the evening—“sometimes up to 10 people.”

In addition to the seniors and the lunch-eaters, the benches were apparently a good spot for drug transactions—which is why, Tooley soon learned, police removed them. But blaming the benches didn’t seem right to her, and ripping them up didn’t seem like good crime-fighting either.

Originally from Massachusetts, Tooley came to D.C. to attend American University, then stuck around for five more years after graduation, living in Columbia Heights. Petite with dark brown hair, she moved to Baltimore last year to complete a masters program in community arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Tooley applied for a $1,000 grant with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, got the money for the bench-restoration project—she pitched it as a temporary installation, knowing full well that the park was slated for a renovation—and threw a barbecue in the triangle during the spring of 2008. Some 60 people munched on hot dogs and hamburgers and helped her fill out a survey she had put together asking the following questions:

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

What is your happiest memory in the park?

Why do you come to the park?

What is your saddest memory in the park?

Why is this park important to you?

What makes a community safe?

Why do you think the benches were taken out?

What would you change about this park?

“Some people were dreaming really big,” says Tooley. They wanted to expand the park, plant flowers and more trees; erect a community bulletin board and a gazebo; and install a water fountain, a grill, a basketball hoop, and footrests and tables for chess, cards, and checkers. Some children just begged for the park to have a smooth surface—something conducive to sailing around on their “wheelies” (shoes with wheels on the soles).

Others focused on addressing the park’s darker issues: One dreamed of “less boys and negativity,” another to “get people to stop spitting.” Still another respondent wrote that D.C. police needed to “employ beat cops from the neighborhood who know and can deal with people.”

Tooley’s talent for organizing was hardly remarkable in her neighborhood. Columbia Heights is teeming with civic groups. They function like bourgeois street crews, protective of their turf. There’s the North Columbia Heights Civic Association—not to be confused with the Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association—and the South Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association, plus two advisory neighborhood commissions.

Chiquita and Bill Phillips belong to the Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association, which prides itself on fighting crime in the neighborhood. They are not among recent gentrifiers: They moved into the neighborhood in the early 1970s, raised children here, and can tell the tale of how the park at 14th and Ogden has changed over the years.

Chiquita Phillips says elderly citizens once congregated there. “That was a part of their socialization and communication. And you know, elderly people really don’t socialize that much,” she says.

But drug dealers came to dominate the space, she says, and then, of course, mothers and children and grandparents stopped coming around. Phillips herself has avoided the park at all costs. When walking home from 14th Street, she’ll stroll a few extra blocks north, rather than journey by the park to cut over to her home near 16th Street.

“Since the Target has been put up, there’s been a lot of emphasis on protecting that area,” she says, referring to the blocks around DC USA. “So then you have the side streets, like Oak and Ogden and Spring Road, that have been neglected—that’s where the drug dealers have come and been accumulating. So it’s very easy for them to hide in those areas,” she says.

Police say a gang called the 3500 crew operates near the park (the 3500 block of 14th Street runs parallel to it). “It’s a great concept to have a park—little rest areas. But it’s not a good idea if you don’t stop disruptive elements from taking it over,” Bill Phillips says.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Police statistics show that within a 1,500-foot radius of the park, crime between mid-September 2008 to 2009 was up 23 percent over the same period the year before. There have been four homicides, compared with one during the previous year. Armed robberies jumped 50 percent; unarmed robberies, 25 percent.

During much of that period, there were no benches.

But Bill Phillips still isn’t convinced they’re harmless. Why provide extra incentives for neighborhood ne’er-do-wells to comfortably lounge in the park for hours?

“Until they resolve the issues of these teenagers, the park is just something to burn money from the city coffers,” he says. “Can a family go up there? My kids, I always took them to other areas—I took them to Rock Creek Park.”

Two years after she first conceived the project, Tooley finally saw her benches installed in the park last month. She’d finished painting them by early summer 2008. But the project stalled while she waited for another $500 grant to come through, so she could hire a welder to help put them in.

Tooley had colored them bright red, green, yellow, blue, purple, black and orange, and they had vibrant, sharply contrasting lettering in a variety of styles across the wooden beams. The words painted on the black bench, which answers the question Why do you think the benches were taken out?, take on an angry tone: “Because the police and government are unprofessional.…People hating on us.…They don’t want us to have our freedoms…”

Others are lighter: Why do you come to the park? “To play guitar…eat crabs…to roll dice…to walk and get exercise.”

The installation started kicking up dust in the neighborhood in no time. Cecilia Jones, president of the Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association, called around asking her neighbors what they thought of the benches. She herself was extremely anxious about their return, and she called Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s office to say so.

“Basically it was an inquiry and a criticism,” she says. Jones thought the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) had approved a renovation plan for the park, sans benches. And then one day, Jones was out on a neighborhood cleanup and there they were again. “I thought: ‘Weren’t these removed because of the crime?’” Jones says. “It does add to the crime and loitering in that corner.”

Not long after Jones’ call to Graham, Tooley got several phone calls and e-mails from DPR and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, where she had gotten her grant.

She says she was asked to remove the installation as soon as possible.

Tooley refused—or refused to acquiesce.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Instead, she stalled, saying, “I want to talk further before we remove them.” And then she did what any good Columbia Heights activist would: She mobilized. She sent an e-mail to friends and neighborhood contacts, urging them to call Graham’s office too—this time in hopes of bombarding his staff with pro-bench fervor. “Don’t let the voice of one speak for the many,” she wrote. “I have a petition signed by 58 neighbors and DC residents that want the benches installed in the park.”

By late August, no fewer than four major city departments and offices—the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Graham’s office—were weighing in on the matter of the park benches and whether they should stay. Tooley herself was planning another barbecue for the park; she wanted to rally support. Graham had since told her that “in light of some public comment,” a decision had been made to keep the benches in for a month’s time, as a kind of trial bench run.

Some 80 neighborhood residents filled the triangular park again on Sept. 12, drifting around the rainbow of benches and over to a table again loaded with hot dogs and burgers. “One month will be up September 28th,” she had written in the event’s promotional flier. “Let Graham know where you stand.”

Tammy Smallwood, a Columbia Heights resident since 1994, sat with a few neighbors on the yellow bench. She’s always viewed the park as a gathering spot for residents of Hubbard Place, a large apartment building north of Oak Street, where her mother lives. “They don’t have a porch,” she says.

As for the benches being ripped up, “it was a disgrace,” Smallwood believes. “People sit on the benches waiting for the bus to come. The public needs certain things.”

Nearby, Nathaniel Hughes, 18, manned the circular grill, monitoring the meat as it cooked on a piece of tin foil.

Tall and lanky and wearing his thin dreads pulled partially back, the recent Dunbar Senior High graduate said he hopes to attend the Allegheny College of Maryland in Cumberland soon. But for now, he’s in his usual zone—the swath of 14th Street NW between Newton Street and Spring Road. Hughes says he’s spent countless hours in the triangular park, sitting and chilling here “when there’s nothing else to do.”

The cops approach Hughes and his friends all the time, he adds. “Anywhere else we go, it’s loitering. The park’s the only refuge we got,” he says. After MPD removed the benches, the local teenagers started hanging out in the alley opposite the park, according to some.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The neighborhood’s become more diverse—it’s a good thing, Hughes believes. “But now young black men—we’re the target. We’re the problem. None of us go to the meetings. I don’t know when they be,” he says.

Besides the local teenagers, some elderly folks, and assorted artsy types, Councilmember Graham showed up—as did a DPR employee who gobbled up a hot dog, nervously eyed his car as some kids leaned against it, and quickly split.

At one point, Graham, Tooley, and a shabbily dressed older man with long, curled fingernails squished into a bench together; the councilman looking delighted to be in attendance. The seating was “very comfortable,” he’d later remark.

Graham confirmed a bit of news that had been delivered to Washington City Paper—though not to Tooley—a day earlier.

That news had come via an e-mail from Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes. “The benches are staying and [Inspector Jacob Kishter] from 3d will ensure that the criminal element is addressed. The best deterrent is that citizens use the park…for positive activities.”

Graham had come around too. A few days earlier, he’d corresponded with Ximena Hartsock, the Parks and Recreation director, and various law enforcement contacts, he says. “The discussion recognized that this was a temporary installation,” he says. Graham had already seemed sympathetic to the artist’s cause; in an earlier e-mail, he’d written that benches don’t themselves promote violent crime or inspire people to, say, urinate publicly.

“As a piece of public art, it’s been provocative and it’s galvanized interest in this space,” Graham says of the installation. “This space has been ignored.”

DPR did not respond to requests for comment.

Jones, the woman who complained to Graham’s office, now says she is “essentially finished with the issue.” Police had decided they could maintain control of the park—with or without benches—and she’d respect and trust their decision. Her neighbors, after all, seemed satisfied.

Please Be Seated: Tooley built seven benches for the tiny triangular park at 14th and Ogden Streets.
(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Perhaps that’s because some time in the near future, the benches will be removed anyway when the city goes ahead with its planned renovation of the park.

Tooley, who knew her installation wouldn’t last forever, hates the design scheme for the new seating, which consists of eight stone stools scattered about the space, according to the design posted on DPR’s Web site. At a park planning session she attended way back in 2007, she recalls attendees debating how many feet apart the stools should be spaced. They wanted to make sure the seats weren’t so close that people could easily pass drugs to one another.

At the barbecue, one of Tooley’s friends walked around with a petition asking for the current design to be modified. The document was addressed to the mayor, Graham, and a local ANC commissioner.

“We would like for future seating in the park to extend beyond the length of one individual seat so that a mother can sit with two small children or two friends can sit next to one another,” it stated.