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Last spring, Dupont Circle residents beheld a common sight: a lone man using garden tools to beautify one of the neighborhood’s eyesores.
Geary Simon, developer of the failed Dupont Down Under project, was channeling his urban pioneering energies toward an orphaned sliver of public space at the junction of New Hampshire Avenue and 20th Street NW. The traffic island, which is near Simon’s apartment, was a muddy, weed- and rat-infested no man’s land ringed by a broken sidewalkuntil, that is, Simon secured permission to upgrade it under the city’s Adopt-a-Park program.
And upgrade it he did. First, Simon rented a backhoe and stripped the entire area down to the dirt underneath. He encircled the sanctuary with a waist-high wrought-iron fence and painted it black; then he imported a bloodgood Japanese maple from Southern California. He installed underground sprinklers, then laid down some Kentucky bluegrass, plus a bed of wispy crimson fountain grass, red celosia plumes, begonias, and rhododendrons.
Simon has left the most important element for lasta small bronze plaque set in the wheelchair-accessible entrance ramp: “IN MEMORY OF MY FRIEND SONNY BONO 1935-1998.” Around the circular plaque are titles that describe facets of Bono’s life: ENTERTAINER, ENTREPRENEUR, STATESMAN, FRIEND. Under the plaque, Simon plans to bury a vault that contains the sheet music to “The Beat Goes On,” a coffee mug from Bono’s restaurant chain, and a pair of congressional cufflinksa gift to him from Bono.
In the eyes of some Dupont Circlites, the planned finishing touches downgrade the space from park to gaudy shrine and demote Simon from do-gooder to local villain.
“I think it’s an outrage that an individual can get a form of ownership to a piece of city land and then dedicate it to whomever they want,” says longtime resident Debby Hanrahan. “There’s tons of people I’d like to memorialize, and they meet a higher test than Sonny Bono. What’s next, a park for Cher, too?”
Simon says his memorial has nothing to do with celebrity, politics, or any other agenda. It’s simply his way of honoring his best friend.
When the phone rang that cold January evening, Simon was curled up with a book in his apartment. It was Sonny, good old Sonny. The former entertainer and the local developer had been tight ever since Bono they met in Washington back in 1994. Whether yapping about movies or the meaning of life, they just dug each other’s company. No matter what, they always spoke on Mondays to catch up on each other’s weekend.
“Where are you?” said Simon.
“I’m on top of a mountain on my cell phone,” said Bono, explaining that he’d extended his family’s South Lake Tahoe ski trip for a few days.
“You’re skiing now?” said Simon.
“Yeah, I’m going to do one more run,” said Bono, his usual chirpy self.
Shortly afterward, Bono skied ahead of his family and slammed into a 40-foot pine tree on a slope at the Heavenly Ski Resort. He was pronounced dead at the scene, due to massive head injuries. That night, as radio stations launched into the obligatory tributes featuring “The Beat Goes On,” Simon flew west to help Bono’s widow, Mary Bono, and their children cope. Over the next few days, he served as a family spokesperson and as a pallbearer at Bono’s celebrity-packed funeral near Palm Springs, Calif.
A week later, a bereft Simon was back in Washington. Mary Bono had decided to run for her husband’s vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, so it was left to Simon to handle the family affairs back east. “There were all these things to take care of,” he recalls. “Homes to find for the pets, cars to dispose of, the house to secure. Then, after a while, when I was no longer busy dealing with these things that had to be dealt with, I got this real hollow feeling. Too many Mondays were going by without that call from Sonny. I knew I couldn’t be going out to Palm Springs every 90 days to visit his grave and talk to him.”
So Simon did the next-best thing, creating a shrine where he could meet with his dearly departed compadre. Something not only permanent, but publica sanctuary where friends and fans could pay their respects.
That’ssort ofwhat Simon does every Sunday, as he walks the block from his apartment to the park. “I cut the grass and pull weeds and bitch at Sonny for leaving,” he says. “It’s very, very healing for me.”
Simon met Bono in 1994 at a karate studio and immediately felt a chemistry. “I knew that we would be friends forever,” says Simon. The two were soon hanging out together at Italian restaurants (Paparazzi in Georgetown was Sonny’s fave) and everywhere else, not only around D.C. but on out-of-town trips. They both kept boats docked at Columbia Island Marina near the Pentagon, and the Bono family spent summer vacations at Simon’s mother’s place in Ocean City.
What really glued them together, though, was their failures. After years riding high on the pop charts and hosting a top-rated TV show as half of Sonny & Cher, Bono saw his marriage and his career disintegrate; he was reduced to pimping himself on Fantasy Islanda long fall from jokester to joke. Then he made his unlikely comeback, first as a restaurateur, then as mayor of Palm Springs, and, finally, as a bright-eyed congressman. Simon had spent much of the ’80s in jail or on probation for fraud and other white-collar crimes; then his dream project, a food court known as Dupont Down Under, stalled (and remains mired in litigation). “We had both failed in our lives and come back,” says Simon.
Simon’s monument of grief isn’t all that odd, at least not in kind. There are more than 50 parks around the District that have been adopted by groups or individuals. Often there is a plaque or shrub dedicated to a local resident who either donated money or was respected in the community. The difference is that Simon went whole hog in his tribute. “Usually a person will say, ‘We want to remember Mrs. Jones, who liked roses,’ or they’ll do a tree planting for somebody,” says Diane Quinn, who oversees the Adopt-A-Park program for the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks (DCRP). “The way that Mr. Simon has approached the park for Sonny Bono is significant in that he’s made such an elaborate effort on behalf of Sonny Bono. It’s usually just a plant, a bush, or a tree.”
According to Quinn, Simon has followed every regulation in his adoption agreement, which doesn’t require any approval from neighborhood groups or associations. “This isn’t like the renaming of a park that requires a city council vote or something,” says Quinn. Usually, adopters inform the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) of their plans, but such notification is not required.
And for Simon, unveiling his plans before a collection of busybodies was spiritually impossible. “This was strictly between me and Sonny,” he says. “I was talking to him the whole time I was building it.” Apparently, Sonny didn’t tell the ANC.
That’s what rankles a lot of neighbors: It’s not that Simon broke any laws, but that he brazenly ignored the decorum as indigenous to Dupont Circle as pooper scoopers. “It should have gone through some public review process,” says Arthur “Chip” Fawcett, veteran Dupont Circle lawyer and former DCRP administrator. “I suspect that he didn’t [submit his proposal] because he didn’t think they’d approve it.” Fawcett remains detached from the controversy and says he’s never “consciously” heard Sonny Bono’s music. “I have mixed feelings,” he says. “I’m happy that it’s being landscaped but I think the location is a little inappropriatewhy not landscape a park in L.A. or Las Vegas?”
In fact, there are plans for a Bono monument in Palm Springs, a city where outsiders don’t gobble up prime statue spots. “We have enough federal intrusions in our city, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give away these little parks to dead congressmen who did nothing for our city,” says Hanrahan. “It’s like us putting up a statue of Mayor Barry in Palm Springs.”
Simon says he wasn’t out to offend anyone, and he points to the soon-to-be completed park as evidence of his restraint: There is neither garish signage nor ostentatious display in his tribute to Bonoall of the tacky stuff will sit in the underground vault. Simon has sunk a sizable sum of his own money into the park, even though many of the materials were donated. All in all, he estimates, the project has set him back thousands of dollars. But it’s all been worth it, he says, because now the public can enjoy his tribute.
“I would like one person a day to speak Sonny’s name,” he says. “Whether it’s somebody that comes by and sees the plaque and says, ‘Oh look, they did a memorial for Sonny Bono,’ or somebody else says, ‘Hey, did you know they built a park for Sonny Bono?’ That way he’s never forgotten. I want people in there eating their lunch, singing ‘The Beat Goes On.’ I don’t careI just want the park to be used. That’s what Sonny would have wanted.”
That’s what his widow apparently wants as well. “Mary is grateful to Mr. Simon for the tribute to Sonny,” says Frank Cullen Jr., spokesperson for Rep. Mary Bono, who succeeded in winning Sonny’s House seat.
Simon hints that Sonny will watch over the park and assist him in complying with his Adopt-A-Park contract. A sod supplier, says Simon, has warned him that the project would wither without constant attention. “He said, ‘Mr. Simon, this is a very sunny locationit’s gonna need a lot of water,’” recalls Simon, still tickled by the double-entendre. “At that time, the sprinkler system wasn’t complete, so I looked up and said, ‘Sonny, did you hear the man? We need a lot of water.’ And it rained for eight straight days. That’s a true story.” CP