A proposal for a Mount Pleasant toddler park is anything but child’s play.
Jack McKay moved into his house on the 3200 block of 19th Street NW in 1974. He says that Mount Pleasant’s ethnic diversity—and, at that time, very reasonable housing prices—attracted him and his wife to the Northwest neighborhood bounded by 16th Street to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west.
“I refused to live west of the park,” Emily Gantz McKay bluntly chimes in, referring to the affluent, predominantly white District neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park, Friendship Heights, and others clustered along the northwest segment of Metro’s Red Line.
Mount Pleasant neighbor Mark Sherman and his wife settled into the 1700 block of Kilbourne Place NW about two decades later—and for many of the same reasons. Reclining on his porch wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt and cutoff jeans, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, Sherman—who spends his days as an education specialist with the Federal Judicial Center—explains that the neighborhood’s ethnic mix and community-building across race and class lines persuaded him and his wife to invest in Mount Pleasant, as well.
“I didn’t want to live in ‘upper Caucasia’—I chose to live here,” he says.
Though McKay and Sherman seem to agree on their neighborhood’s current assets, they differ on a proposed addition: a toddler park specifically designed for children aged 6 and under, slated for construction at 19th and Lamont Streets NW. The resulting skirmish over whether Mount Pleasant needs tot-safe swings and slides has fractured the neighborhood, which, until recently, expressed pride in its racial and economic diversity.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and I’ve never seen the neighborhood so divided,” says Lamont Street NW resident Barbara Flood.
What initially appeared to be a simple matter of child’s play has evolved into a highly charged playground spat, with McKay and Sherman as the principal rabble-rousers. In the middle sits Mount Pleasant’s significant Latino community.
Soon after settling in Mount Pleasant, the Shermans began adding new members to their household. “When we had our first child, several families in the neighborhood were also having kids,” says Sherman. “We were all kinda freakin’ out.” They formed the Mount Pleasant Sitters/Parents Co-op, an informal neighborhood support group for parents with small children.
It’s been a long time since the 1991 Mount Pleasant riots—catalyzed by the shooting of a Latino resident by an African-American policeman—and the 1993 terror wrought by a gunman known as the “shotgun stalker” made the neighborhood synonymous with random violence.
Now, Mount Pleasant’s sidewalks are teeming with strollers. A city renaissance fueling a tight housing market, coinciding with the opening of a Green Line Metro station a few blocks east of 16th Street, has transformed the area into a neighborhood of choice not only for District old-timers and Latin-American newcomers but also for predominantly young, two-income couples and families who might not have considered living there a decade ago.
Not yet obsessed with schools, these young parents focus on another urban quality-of-life issue: parks and public playgrounds. They believe that Mount Pleasant’s supply of such space is inadequate, unsafe, and inferior to parks in surrounding neighborhoods. In his first visit with his son to the city playground at 16th and Lamont Streets NW, Sherman says, he found human feces and a used syringe.
“I don’t want to live in crap,” he says. “I want to live in nicety.”
So Sherman found himself commuting to playgrounds in other neighborhoods, such as Macomb Park in Cleveland Park and Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan. “The point is: Why do we have to take our kids out of our neighborhood to play?” Sherman asked himself and his fellow parents.
So a little more than two years ago, co-op members began searching for underutilized open space in Mount Pleasant. They finally settled on the swath of greenery across from a 35-unit apartment building at 1900 Lamont St. NW. Their $115,000 toddler-park proposal includes swings, slides, trees, a garden, and community art space.
In February 2000, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1E completed the first step in the process, quickly endorsing a proposal to turn the space over from D.C.’s Department of Public Works to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
That’s the first time, McKay says, that he and his neighbors heard about the new toddler park. “They came in at the beginning and said, ‘We’re going to jam this down your throats,’” says McKay. He claims that toddler-park proponents failed to clue in neighbors, creating the impression that they were entitled to the community space. “They are all yuppies moving to Mount Pleasant because it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood—and they insist on running it their way,” McKay says.
McKay insists that his group of toddler-park opponents represents the “cultural mix of Mount Pleasant.” As he ambles down the staircase along the 1900 block of Lamont Street NW one drizzly Thursday evening, he looks to the rolling grass on his right and cites three reasons why he vehemently opposes building a park on the site: steepness, size, and proximity. Though technically on the books as a public road, about half of the steep stretch of Lamont between 19th Street and Adams Mill Road NW has never been paved— which makes the block passable only to pedestrians and bikers in search of rugged terrain.
At first glance, the spot selected for the toddler park seems like a tough fit for youngsters just learning to maintain their balance. The rolling, grassy knoll would have to be creatively terraced to make the park accessible and safe for youngsters as well as compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. And the small width of the parcel, hemmed in by row houses to the north and the apartment house to the south, leaves little room for trees and other natural mechanisms to absorb cries of joy—and just plain crying—from tots and their caregivers.
“If you’re a parent of a toddler, you’re here a few hours a day,” says toddler-park opponent and Lamont Street neighbor Rodney Case. “But for us who live here, there’s no escape,” McKay finishes.
Case points out the 20-foot drop between where Lamont ends at 19th Street and where it begins again. In between the paved roads, a large staircase is flanked by the apartment building and an undeveloped plot of land, enclosed by a chain-link fence. The apartment building leases the land from the city, though building management hasn’t paid the District rent in years.
Most of the apartment renters oppose the toddler-park plan. Instead of sticking to a simple NIMBY argument, however, McKay and his fellow travelers have relied on a campaign emphasizing fear and powerlessness against encroaching gentrification in their fight against the toddler park.
“They don’t seem to think there were children here before,” says Flood. “I don’t understand their agenda, unless it’s to have something for themselves.”
McKay argues that the neighborhood already has two acceptable playgrounds, at Bancroft Elementary School and at 16th and Lamont Streets between the Sacred Heart Church and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation headquarters. He hints at the reason he believes Sherman and the other co-op parents insist on their own toddler space. “All of them live closer in that direction,” says McKay, offering a map of the area and the location of each toddler-park supporter. “Why do they object to the 16th and Lamont playground? [Because]16th and Lamont is full of working-class Hispanics.”
Toddler-park advocates deny McKay’s assertion. “This is not an effort to create an elitist play space,” responds Mount Pleasant ANC commissioner Desmond Dodd, who’s a member of the sitters co-op and a supporter of the toddler park. “The thing that excites me most is that it’s a public space that can be used for families across the economic spectrum.”
Sherman and fellow toddler-park advocate Steve Trauben flip the race card back on their opponents. “What we’re trying to do is bring Mount Pleasant over there, as well,” responds Trauben. “They’re afraid of poor Latino people coming over there.”
“We’re the racists because we’re trying to bring Latinos into their part of the neighborhood,” Sherman says. “We just want to make [Mount Pleasant] nicer for everyone. We don’t want to change it—we just want to make it family-friendly.”
On June 27, hundreds of Mount Pleasant residents packed into the basement of Sacred Heart Church for a community discussion and vote on the toddler park facilitated by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. For more than a year, a working group of toddler-park supporters and opponents had worked with Graham to reach consensus on the project without success.
Between the fans blowing to keep the crowd cool and vocal residents strapped in strollers and baby huggers, it was hard to hear the speakers for and against the project. “Man, shut them kids up!” said one man in the front row, who later spoke against the park. “This is ridiculous.”
McKay and Trauben presented the opposing sides of the issue. “A vote ‘no’ tonight is not a vote against the toddler park,” McKay reassured the crowd, citing both geographic concerns and questions about park maintenance and safety.
“The primary issue here is the opening of this private space to the public,” read a flier circulated before the meeting. “It will be open not just to toddlers and their caregivers, but to anyone and everyone. There will be nothing to keep out dogs, drunks, and aggressive young men with boomboxes.”
Proponents countered the arguments with proposals to have private security and maintenance. They also spoke about their plan to create a “Friends of” group that would work with the Department of Parks and Recreation to fund and maintain the facility.
After McKay and Trauben spoke, Graham entertained speakers from the audience, alternating between proponents and opponents. The first seven speakers on behalf of the park were young white residents; the first seven speakers against were older African-American neighbors who live in the apartment building or own homes near the toddler park.
“My family has lived in this neighborhood 40 years,” toddler-park opponent Betty Ayomike told the crowd. “My kids have grown up without a toddler park, and they’ve done very well.”
Supporters framed the toddler park as a mechanism to build community, not tear it apart. “It’s not just a benefit for those in $600,000 homes with front and back yards,” countered one toddler-park supporter. “Where is the Latin-American community? Where is the Vietnamese community?”
Those were questions that neither group had an answer for; as Mount Pleasant’s young immigrant communities seemed not to have even one representative at the meeting.
The vote ended up 3 to 1 in favor of the park, with 197 yes votes and 70 no votes.
“I believe Mount Pleasant has spoken,” Trauben now says about the vote.
Even after the vote, though, the sandbox war continues.xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Toddler-park proponents point out that McKay has a special interest in the debate. “He’s the most vocal one against it,” says Trauben, “because he’s got the most to lose.”
McKay’s house sits right to the north of the proposed park. A wooden fence separates the grassy lot from his yard, which contains a swing set used by his 3-year-old granddaughter. “Technically, I’m intruding on city-owned property,” McKay admits.
“He’s got his own toddler park back there,” says Sherman. “He’s portraying himself as a white knight when, in fact, he’s a freeloader.”
Still, McKay says that he’s not making a NIMBY appeal. He says that he would support the toddler park at 1900 Lamont as long as certain “safeguards” for security and maintenance were put in place.
Toddler-park supporters say that they have met McKay’s demands with reasonable solutions. But McKay says that their disregard for him and his neighbors has bred distrust. “We’re not opposed to a toddler playground,” McKay now says. “We’re opposed to opening up property to a group that’s incompetent to manage it.”
With the votes tallied, Graham has now offered legislation in the D.C. Council officially transferring the land to move the project forward. McKay insists that he will bring the fight to Judiciary Square.
Despite the acrimony, some still see the dispute as a positive community-building experience. “To the extent that meeting brought a wide range of voices…I don’t know what better evidence you need that parks bring people together,” says Dodd. CP