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Desmond Clark stands alongside his car, patting its roof. “I’m driving the hoopdee today,” he says, leaning against the vehicle. It’s a hot Sunday in August, and Clark’s car is parked on the side of the road in Anacostia Park, Southeast D.C.’s summertime hoopdee showroom: There are beat-up old Hondas with bras that are tattered and torn, boxy station wagons with dragging bumpers, and dusty minivans begging for some kid to write “Wash Me!” in their grime.
Clark’s hoopdee is a little different from the rest of the assortment: It’s an Acura CL Type-S. The South Carolina native realizes that his car doesn’t qualify as a hoopdee in the traditional sensean old, dilapidated, gargantuan ridebut he refers to it as such nonetheless. “I call all cars hoopdees,” Clark explains. “Except for maybe a Rolls-Royce, a Bentleythose are automobiles.” But Clark’s ride has more in common with an auction-block clunker than he’s aware of.
The Acura CL Type-S is a beautiful piece of motor craftsmanshipthe model comes standard with a VTEC engine and sport suspension, and it doesn’t roll off the lot for less than $30,000. But by Anacostia Park standards, it’s simply not that special. High-end luxury cars can be spotted anywherethe Home Depot parking lot, outside Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown. You’ve got to come with more than an outrageous sticker price to make an impact in Anacostia Park.
The object of the game is making the most of what you’ve gotwhether it be drawing Chinese characters onto the fiberglass body of an otherwise unremarkable motorcycle or slapping a custom paint job on a Crown Victoria. It’s all about the extras: the Chevrolet Caprice painted the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, the Cadillac El Dorado with hubcaps that simulate bicycle spokes, the burgundy Ford Expedition with rims that spin like pinwheels even when the truck is stopped.
Those are the features that inspire onlookers to widen their eyes and voice the ultimate affirmation of car-strip cool: “Deeeyam!”
As important as all the accessories, of course, is miles per hour. When the strip is pulsing, there’s not a lot of room, and the souped-up vehicles piled up make it look like I-95 on a Friday night. As the motorists inch along, they check out folks hanging by the side of the road: shirtless men putting Armor All on their tires, women with nimble fingers plaiting hair. All the while, “competing” autos buzz around the park.
For all these reasons, Anacostia Park is one of the few spots in the D.C. area where gridlock is the aim, where congestion attracts motorists rather than forces them into detours. The idea is basically to take a leisurely stroll through the parkonly inside your car.
Any speed geared toward actually transporting people won’t work. Even at 10 or 15 mph, the beautiful people morph into a dizzying mass, the blue backdrop blurs, and the tunes blasting from the vehicles get distorted.
Speed precludes socializing as well. Go too fast and you miss meeting your future boyfriend or girlfriend, miss bumping into that kid you went to elementary school with, miss the offer of a grilled hot dog from that woman who used to work with your mother.
The steady stream of shiny motorcycles, SUVs on spinners, and tricked-out sports
cars that seem barely street legal is an integral part of the scene. But whether you’re behind the wheel or leaning against cars parked in lay-bys on either side of the narrow two-lane road, the point is to relax in the sticky summer air, hang out with friends both old and new, and, above all, move slowly enough to both see and be seen.
“We come out here to enjoy the weather and flirt,” says Robin Fields, 20, a Lincoln Heights resident who hits the park at least twice a week. “Males roll by because they want the females to see their automobiles. On Friday and Saturday, there is no room to moveif it’s not raining.”
Northwest native Lawrence Jones, 43, who moved back to the District in July after an eight-year stay in Richmond, Va., says he had to stop in just to see if things were still the same.
“For me, it’s just the people,” Jones says. “Seeing people chillin’, coolin’ out. It’s not really about the carsit’s about the people.”
But don’t come through on a weekday expecting a crowdonly the uninitiated show up on Monday afternoons. Cruising days are Friday, Saturday, and Sundaythe appointed hour any time after the disappearance of the afternoon sun, which wreaks havoc on pearly paint jobs. (Of course, even during prime time, novices are easy to spotthey’re the ones who lean on their horns instead of enjoying the view when the guy in the white station wagon jumps out to take a quick piss.)
On summer weekends, when the main road becomes a one-way street, the traffic proceeds in a never-ending circle. Cars slow for the main strip in the park, then take Nicholson to 22nd to Minnesota to Good Hope, and prepare for another run down the Anacostia strip.
The loop is a critical part of cruising. You don’t want to be seen fumbling through a three-point turn as you make your way back to the main drag. Turning around in an already packed parking lot means potential embarrassmentmake too many awkward maneuvers and undoubtedly someone will laugh. Or shout: “Why have a nice car if you don’t know how to drive it?”
The convenience of a smooth, round traffic pattern is the primary reason that Hains Point was, until recent years, the place to cruise. The Point, a segment of Southwest D.C.’s East Potomac Park, is nothing more than a giant loop. In the mid- to late ’90s, however, car and motorcycle enthusiasts, and their devout followers, stopped visiting.
Hains Point’s car scene began its slow death when park officials decided to close off the circle to vehicle traffic during select summer weekend hours in an effort to make the Point friendlier to those who don’t read Car and Driver.
“In the late ’90s, Park Service closed Hains Point on the weekend in the summer from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. to vehicle traffic,” says Steve Lorenzetti, chief of the Division of Resource Management for National Capital Parks
Central, which oversees Hains Point. “[It] began running a shuttle bus to take people in and out of the park.”
Car enthusiasts + shuttle buses = “We’re outta here.”
“It got so crowded with automobiles that people couldn’t enjoy the park,” Lorenzetti continues. “It was just an unpleasant experience,” he says. “It was getting bumper to bumper.”
That was the point!
A few Point fans still hold out hope that one day they’ll again be able to ride through and blast their music, to the annoyance of tourists climbing on The Awakening. But for the most part, it seems that the spot has fallen out of favor for good.
On an overcast Thursday evening in August, Gary Thompson, Floyd Powell, and Greg Freeman are talking cars and bikes. It’s a slow night in Anacostia Park. The men discuss upgrades to Freeman’s Suzuki motorcycle and marvel at Thompson’s modified 1995 Toyota Supra, which has a license plate that reads “SUPRFLY” and a custom paint job that matches the color of the low-hanging sun.
“This is the only park in Washington where we have the opportunity to enjoy ourselves,” says Freeman. “We used to do Hains Point…”
Banning the scene from the Point, say the men, proves that gentrification has hit the city’s parks as surely as it has Dupont Circle. “It was too close to downtown,” says Powell of Hains Point. He mentions that when he went there recently with his girlfriend, there was nobody hanging outaside from a few snuggling couples.
Freeman says that compared with Hains Point, Anacostia isn’t all thatthe area is small, the bathrooms are dirty, and the benches are raggedy. “You wouldn’t have your family reunion down here,” he says.
But for all of the park’s faults, its loyalists worry that its proximity to the heart of the city means that eventually they will be forced to relocateagain.
“Mark my words,” Freeman says. “When Capitol Hill crosses the Sousa Bridge, they’ll shut this down.”
Actually, the dynamic of the beloved park might change sooner than its fans think. Janet Braxton, public information officer for National Capital ParksEast, which oversees Anacostia Park, says that improvements are forthcoming. “We’ll make it so that cars can still come through,” Braxton says. “But there will also be more space for bikers, trails for hikers.”
To committed car scenesters, that sounds like a land grab.
“They’ve got the park in the daytime all week long, from early morning until 6 at night,” says Freeman. “How much friendlier to cyclists can it get? You can dress it up and call it whatever you want to but…it’s the same thing that shut down Hains Point.”
Somebody’s got to make sure the gearheads and soccer players share the turf peacefully; that mandate falls on the U.S. Park Police. “Park Police does a great job of patrolling,” says Braxton, “making sure that things stay quiet, calm, and peaceful.”
Park regulars, however, say the cops seem to think that maintaining order includes heckling and harassing some participants in the outdoor party. Powell remembers an incident last year when an officer chided people for being in the park “too early,” or before Memorial Day, when summer on the loop really begins.
“It was a woman; she happened to be of European descent,” says Powell. “She was on a bullhorn: ‘It’s too early! It’s not a holiday!’” Powell argues that the park is an escape of sorts for those Washingtonians who can’t retreat to a swanky beach house. “This is my whole summer vacation,” he continues. “There’s no gunfire, just some loud music. Maybe this is some people’s Hawaii.”
Park Police Officer William Dula says that the cops who patrol Anacostia Park try to give folks leeway to have fun and kick back, provided they do so within the confines of the law. “We want them to have a good time,” he says. “But also follow the rules.”
Dula says that, typically, three or four cars are deployed to patrol the area on weekends, when the park is busiest. Freeman thinks four black-and-whites are too many.
“This little park is patrolled by more police than Hains Point,” Freeman says. “You see at least four cars in this little half-mile.”
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) doesn’t have jurisdiction in Anacostia Parkexcept in the case of homicides, sexual assaults, or specific instances when they’re called in by park police to perform a specific taskbut their squad cars are frequently seen riding through. Inspector Joel Maupin of the MPD’s District 6 Substation, who used to be an officer in the area, says that cops ride through because it allows them to travel from one end of their beat to the other without having to contend with traffic lights.
But Freeman doesn’t believe that the officers he routinely sees are just using the park as a shortcut.
“See that?” he says, pointing out two passing MPD motorcycle officers to prove his point. A few moments later, they whiz by again, staring in Freeman’s general direction. A few moments after that, they approach a third timeand stop right in front of Freeman. He greets them with a look that says both “What did I do?” and “Oh shit.”
From the seat of his beat-up, department-issue Honda cycle, one of the officers looks Freeman in the eye and says, “I have just one question for you….
“Can I have your bike? Please? Just tell me, man, yes or no?”
The officers chat Freeman up about his ride, obviously envious of the black Suzuki GSX 1300 R. As the cops gush, an equally admiring group of school-age boys on bicycles gathers around, completing the hierarchy of bikes.
“How much did that bike cost? A million dollars?” one kid asks Freeman.
“Shut up, man. You sound stupid,” says another.
Requests to sit on the motorcycle go either unheard or ignored.
Equally enthralled by the giant black-and-chrome monster are a few carloads of teenage girls who pass by and attempt to catch Freeman’s eye. Some resort to yelling out, “Hey!” before slumping down low in their seats.
Flirting at Anacostia Park is rarely subtle. You’d think that trying to pick up someone would be easier in a dark, smoky club than in the harsh light of day, but women hoot and holler at men riding or walking by, and men likewise stop their cars in the middle of the street, waving people around as they woo women.
A guy with a shiny bald head riding an orange-and-blue motorcycle without a helmet crawls along the strip and manages to get almost every woman standing on the side of the road to flag him down. “Heyyy,” says one woman in jean shorts and what appears to be a bikini top. “Hellooo,” calls out another, whose back was turned until she spotted the smooth rider out of the corner of her eye. A third woman simply meets his gaze and makes the universal noise of approval: “Mmm, mmm, mmm.”
And, though flashy cars and bikes are always head-turners, they aren’t the only props men employ to attract the attention of young women. Also ranking high on the list of things men believe young women admire are doggies, which is the option Fairfax County resident Darrell Smith, 20, has decided to go with on this Sunday evening.
He and a buddy are walking a pair of pit bulls, B and Shadow, and have stopped to talk to two young ladies from Woodbridge. “I came down here because I got a new harness for my dog,” Smith says. “I can’t show it off in Virginiawhite people don’t appreciate it.”
After further prodding, however, he finally confesses his real reason for coming to the park. “I’m here for them,” he says nodding toward Jessica Tillman and Shakira Lamberty, both 18. He’s only just met them.
Tillman says she’s “just browsing,” and, contrary to what Smith may think, that she hasn’t met anyone special. “Just these dogs,” she says, giving Shadow a pat on the head.
The scene at Anacostia Park is new to the Virginia youngstersmost have been only a few times, and Smith admits that today is his first time here. “He’s from Fairfax,” Lamberty says by way of explanation. “What do you expect?”
Older folks, however, know that the same rituals of courtship have played out in this park for ages. Though teenagers may discover the scene and think it’s some hot new hangout, they’re merely repeating the actions of previous generations of Washingtonians.
Southeast resident Charmaine Jones, 42, is picnicking at the park with friends on a Sunday in August, sitting far back from the kids and their cars. She remembers a more raucous scene from her teenage years. Back then, there was live music, and the park didn’t close at dark. “You could stay out here all night. People used to sleep out here,” Jones says. “You couldn’t do that today.”
Jones says that part of the reason park rules have become more restrictive over the years is that people took advantage of the lack of curfew. “People started doing dirt under the covers,” she says of the days when the park hosted those outdoor slumber parties. But she’s quick to mention that, new rules or not, people still manage to find a way to hook up. “That’s why they run people out of herethey need to take that to the house.”
Maupin, the former beat cop, suggests that the scene hasn’t changed all that much.
“Young people are still here,” Maupin says. “Still doing things they probably shouldn’t do. When I was still an officer, I used to come here, catch a van rockingbut I guess that’s part of summertime.”
On this, the loveliest Sunday evening of the summer, the park is filled to maximum capacity. At 8:05, just as the sun is beginning its descent, two park police cruisers have already blocked the Good Hope Road entrance to prevent even more people from crushing inside. Refusing to be thwarted, several people, hoping to make a quick circle or two before complete blackness, create their own mini-strip just outside the barricade.
On the strip, as the sun continues to set, radios switch off, car engines start, and a long stream of blinding headlights winds toward the exit. At 8:30, a Park Police car makes a sweep, pushing out the stragglers. The standard Crown Victoria cruiser has no spinning rims and no thumping sound system, but people still crane their necks to watch it drive down the road. Its only decorations are side door decals and the flashing red, white, and blue lights that illuminate the darkness and signal that the party is over. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery .