Enclosure Movement: This field in Rock Creek Park is a no-balls zone.
Enclosure Movement: This field in Rock Creek Park is a no-balls zone. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Are parks for being used or for being looked at?

That’s a question for the folks who control our open spaces. “Looked at” seems to be their preferred response these days.

A whole lot of temporary wooden fencing was recently put up on two fields alongside Piney Branch Parkway beneath 16th Street NW.

That location has been a soccer hotbed for decades. Formal matches aren’t played there, just pickup games. Pretty much any evening or weekend weather allows, dozens of players show up, push sticks into the ground and start kicking. The large dirt spots in the grassy knolls beneath the giant Woodner Building show how popular these pitches are.

Or, rather, how popular they were. The new fencing cripples the site’s utility as a makeshift soccer field.

When the barriers first showed up, players moved their games across the street, to the north side of the parkway. One problem: The terrain there is at a 30-degree angle.

Soccer isn’t meant to be played on a steep hill, and judging from the size of recent gatherings most players have moved elsewhere. But their options are getting pretty limited. Other pickup soccer hangouts in the same area have also been taken out of commission.

The same sort of snow fencing now dominates the formerly open spaces at the park across Tilden Street from Pierce Mill, for example. The pattern of the fence there—it’s spread out in the shape of an eight-bladed fan—leaves no room for a game.

A small sign on the fencing says turf repair. The grass at Pierce Mill won’t be confused with the greens at Augusta National, but the field is hardly a Steinbeckian dust bowl, either.

The temporary red fences, augmented by strips of police tape, have been up for nearly three years on the upper level of Meridian Hill Park off 16th Street NW. Fencing was removed earlier this month on the south half of the beautiful park’s upper level. The northern knoll remains blocked off.

So soccer’s out there, too.

There are no turf repair signs on the Meridian Hill Park fences—or anything to tell patrons why the grounds are off limits.

The out-of-commission soccer spots have some things in common besides the red fences.

The National Park Service, for one, runs them all, even Meridian Hill, as part of Rock Creek Park.

Bill Line, spokesman for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, says there is no anti-soccer bias at his agency.

The fences are merely a symptom of the government’s pro-grass bent, Line insists.

“This isn’t about soccer. Not at all. This is all about repairing the grass,” Line says. “If you don’t fence off the area, dirt is going to stay dirt. This is all temporary. But the public must know, grass doesn’t regenerate overnight. Sometimes an area has to be taken out of service for five or six months, maybe longer. The park has a grounds supervisor, and they’ll decide when it’s naturally regenerated itself. So it could take a while. But this is not permanent.”

Line says the Park Service hasn’t heard complaints from disenfranchised soccer players or any other segment of the general public since putting up the fencing.

“I think that’s because with Rock Creek Park, the general public thinks not of grassy spaces but of trees,” Line says. “It is looked at more as a forest, an urban oasis,” than a place to play pickup soccer.

Another commonality of the blocked-out locations: The pickup soccer games were overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, played by Hispanic groups. Carlos Quiroz, a Peruvian native and longtime District resident, takes the fenced off soccer fields as a sign of a cultural disconnect between the government and the players.

Quiroz says no amount of fencing will kill off pickup soccer.

“In Latin American culture, you play sports wherever you can,” says Quiroz, who monitors issues important to the area’s Hispanic residents on his blog, Carlos in DC. “That is very different from here [in the U.S.], where everywhere you need permits from the government, you need to reserve space, and you need to sign up with the city or county so somebody is responsible for any damage before you are allowed to use any field. In Latin America, you just find a spot in any field or on the street, anywhere, put down some stones for goals, and just start playing. The players don’t think about killing grass. They are going to play, anywhere they can.”

Steve Coleman, executive director of the open-space advocacy group Washington Parks and People, has been watching the goings-on at Meridian Hill, and stewing about ’em, for years.

Coleman relates the restrictions placed on Meridian Hill and other Rock Creek Park sites by the National Park Service to government heavy-handedness in nearly all park matters.

“There’s something quite fishy about the way this has dragged on at Meridian Hill Park,” says Coleman. “Fencing for almost three years to protect the grass? We’re told the contractor who was hired for maintaining the grass is responsible, and they’ve decided it would be easier to maintain it if it remained fenced off. Well, life would be easier if everything were fenced off. But that’s not the way it works.”

For another side of the turf-preservation dilemma, one need only venture over to Walter Pierce Park, a District-owned parcel in Adams Morgan. The once-lush lawn there has been turned into a hard, grassless, basically useless terrain. Local activist Bryan Weaver blames overuse (by permitted soccer and kickball teams) and misguided maintenance.

Coleman says he’s not against all oversight of open spaces, just over-oversight: “There are obviously ways to regulate use to save grass without closing off everything.”

At Meridian Hill, Coleman says, the thinking may be to send the message that the grassy expanses aren’t places for playing ball. “But that’s the whole purpose of the site!” he replies. “It’s not meant to be a formal field, but it’s been a place for all sorts of pickup games since Native Americans played on that hilltop 10,000 years ago. Here we are, the only country that has ‘the pursuit of happiness’ written into our founding documents, yet here we have this beautiful cultural landscape where we are telling people they can’t play! People are not the enemy, but his has been the attitude at Meridian Hill Park for a long time. I remember when [the National Park Service] used to hang signs there that said ‘No ballplaying!’ back when drug dealing was rampant. It’s just fencing, but it’s not over-dramatizing things to say this is a big-picture issue.”

Coleman says he’s been told the remaining fencing at Meridian Hill Park will be removed by summer, but he says he’s not optimistic that will happen.

The south side of the upper concourse at Meridian Hill Park, where fencing has just been removed, bustled throughout Easter Sunday.

The regular drum circle was huge. There was lots of dog walking, some tai chi routinists, and even various amateur circus performers riding unicycles, walking a tightrope, tumbling and a few couples practicing some weird and dangerous-looking combination of yoga and acrobatics.

The north end, where the fences are still up, was essentially empty. To a non-landscaper’s eyes, the grass inside the blocked out portions looked to be in damn good shape. It’d make a fine soccer field.