Cleaning up Meridian Hill Park in Northwest during the ’90s, Steve Coleman thought he and his Washington Parks & People volunteers were doing gritty work. As they cleared the site, they would stumble upon artifacts of the long-standing drug market there, such as dime bags, or witness the occasional dope deal. But in the spring of 2001, with Meridian Hill sufficiently revitalized, Coleman’s group turned to Watts Branch Park in Northeast.

Suddenly, the blight they remembered at Meridian Hill seemed minor-league. At Watts Branch, hypodermic needles “were everywhere,” Coleman says. “I couldn’t believe the number.” Volunteers quickly understood why locals referred to the seedy section along Division Avenue NE as “Needle Park.” To date, Coleman and his crew have removed about 4,500 syringes.

Nestled in a three-and-a-half-square-mile stream valley in Northeast, Watts Branch is the District’s longest city park, following the creek of the same name 1.6 miles from the Maryland border near Capitol Heights downstream to Minnesota Avenue NE. After floods ravaged the area in the ’20s, the federal government bought up a patchwork of valley land and designated it green space in 1930. But its park status was superficial—the government merely wanted control of the flood zone—so the area never received the maintenance and attention normally provided to a city park.

By the height of the ’80s crack epidemic, the park had turned into a violent, open-air drug market that most residents preferred to avoid. After an incident at the park in 2000 in which two city health inspectors were robbed and a third was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, the Department of Health felt compelled to send private security guards along with the employees it dispatched to test stream water.

While making the park hospitable to the general public, Coleman’s five-member staff and thousands of volunteers have conducted what has seemed at times like an excavation of criminal life and a study in watershed pollution.

“At first, I said, ‘Hell no, ain’t no way we’ll clean this place,’” says Murphy Williams, an ex-convict who was brought on staff full-time eight months ago. “You couldn’t see the grass for the trash.” But trash cleanup was the easy part. Invasive weeds and trees had overtaken trails and bridges so that the park was impassable in parts.

As they uprooted the growth and opened the lines of sight, the Parks & People corps started to uncover prodigious eyesores—couches, burned-out cars, abandoned trucks, refrigerators, washing machines, even a trailer. “The word was, if you wanted to dump anything, Watts Branch was a place you could do it with impunity,” says Coleman. They’ve removed 44 autos from Watts Branch (including several engulfed in the modest stream) with the help of the Department of Public Works and a concrete company that lent a front-end loader. Williams says he’s also pulled about 12 bicycles out of the stream.

Even as workers were hauling vehicle carcasses out, new stolen cars would be shuffled into the park and set ablaze. “At first when we came in here, there’d be a [new] car left in the park every week,” says Williams. “They’d set them on fire.”

An abandoned Ford Explorer, discovered by a resident near 59th and Clay Streets NE in late 2001, turned out to be housing a dead body. The corpse was promptly removed, but Coleman says the SUV sat in the park for four months before it was hauled away. “We have police officers who’ve been on the beat for most of their career in this area, and they still think it’s not their jurisdiction,” says Coleman.

The bounty of auto salvage and bulk trash Parks & People have removed is rivaled by the wealth of small items. Ferreting a soda can out of a patch of woods, a volunteer might find one of the park’s small wonders—a knife or a few scattered bullets. The syringes were so commonplace at first that Coleman developed a rigid protocol: The crew first handled them with gloves and placed them in plastic bottles, but they eventually removed the needles with pickup sticks, depositing them in red medical waste containers. Twice, Coleman has walked down a park path and witnessed an addict shooting a syringe into his neck with the help of a friend. “There were things I was going to see that I didn’t think I’d have the stomach for,” he says. (Minding the park also requires nerve. On a tour of the park with a Washington City Paper photographer, Coleman and a group of fellow Parks & People members were accosted by a half-dozen teens, who demanded money and punched the photographer.)

Forging through the trails, volunteers found heaps of garbage where the pieces of trash seemed plastered together as if in sculpture. They realized these were trash piles amassed during cleanups years ago but never hauled away. Coleman found a weed tree with 18 rings—one for each year—sprouting through the middle of a garbage pile.

“The president would come out or whatever”—Bill Clinton showed up in 1993—”they’d do all the photo ops, and then everyone would leave,” says Coleman. “No one would clean up the piles. It was all about show.”

Eventually, the crews started to uncover unseen ecological damage. Several cracks in a nearby wash were allowing sewage to pour down a bank and into the stream. When Coleman looked back through the Department of Health’s records, he found that the pipe had been cited as a danger as far back as 12 years previously.

Judging from the pipe’s outflow, he calculated that at least 100 million gallons of sewage water had poured into the stream. “A conservative estimate,” he says. “The main pollutant is not heavy metals—it’s fecal coliform [bacteria].”

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority spokesperson Libby Lawson says the agency repaired the sewer line in 2002 and that Coleman’s estimate of spilled wastewater volume is unrealistic.

Because of poorly maintained storm drains, Coleman found, the stream filled with trash flowing from the District and Prince George’s County after every storm. He says he took an afternoon walk through the park in May 2002 and found a mason cleaning out his cement mixer near the stream.

On Nov. 3, Coleman was glad to find dozens of local residents, rather than local contractors, using the park on an unseasonably warm afternoon. He likes to keep tally of the expunged blemishes as a sign of progress. Seven thousand invasive weeds. Nine hundred and fifty car tires.

“It’s like combat,” he says. After just 13,000 volunteers and a million pounds of trash and wreckage, Coleman says, Watts Branch has reached the tipping point. “People in the community can see something very visible and positive,” he says. “It’s not entirely positive yet, but it’s night-and-day from when we started.” CP