City Paper is not for tourists
It’s a still, cool February night when the madness begins at Glen Echo in suburban Maryland. Actually, it has been going on for months—years, really—but this is my first glimpse of it. When it comes to school reading lists and straying urban riff-raff, I know the suburbs can be a hotbed of hysteria. But I’m not prepared for this.
I was anticipating a subdued community meeting about the future of Glen Echo Park—droning bureaucrats, earnest community types, the search for common ground, blah, blah, blah. A boring assignment, I thought, where old folks or couples with kids would talk about how they needed the place to walk their dogs and grandchildren. But when I arrive at a meeting at the Clara Barton Recreation Center, adjacent to Glen Echo, the place is so packed with fanatics, obsessives, and freaks of all versions that there’s barely room inside to breathe.
Advocates of every stripe swirl about the crowded room, scanning photos and brochures, caucusing with friends, arguing with Park Service employees. Others stand at easels, furiously scribbling their heartfelt messages, urging whoever reads them (my guess is no one) to save the park. A line with hundreds more anxious supporters waiting, in the rain, just to get in, snakes around the outside of the building.
My notepad and pen give me away as a reporter, so it makes sense that I’m mobbed by frenzied park supporters. They don’t seem to care what paper I’m from or what angle I’m after. They shout arguments and phone numbers, shoving business cards in my face. A man with frayed white hair and electric blue eyes comes so close our noses almost touch. He hands me his card—for a landscaping business in Silver Spring—as he tells me the park is a place to “let our souls be expressed.”
I turn from him, a little frightened, and retreat to a woman with a rag-doll puppet balanced on her hip, who doesn’t seem nearly as scary. She insists on using her puppet as her spokesperson, though, and nods the doll’s head, topped with a mop of brown hair, up and down as she speaks. The puppet responds to my questions, but I can see the woman’s lips move the entire time.
When I find myself actually writing down what the puppet says, I decide it’s time to go outside. The misty night air greets me with a rush. I gratefully grab a bench and relax with a Pepsi. I’m alone for about two seconds.
Earl Callen, a zealous white-haired man in his 70s who has been coming to the park for over 40 years, approaches directly. He shoves a letter, peppered with exclamation points, that details his attachment to the park into my hands. Callen made the letter at home on his computer and says he’s going to give it to every politician he can think of, along with anyone else he comes across on his single-man picket in front of the building—or, in this case, me. “It’s just an impassioned appeal,” he shrugs.
That’s the only kind of support Glen Echo has. On various stories, I’ve come across all kinds of true-believing-save-a-nuclear-gay-whale-for-Christ types, but they’re all pikers compared with the advocates of Glen Echo. Sovereign land hasn’t been so vigorously defended since Washington was under attack by the British in 1814. The way these people have taken to the ramparts, you’d think the park had been a part of public domain since then, but the National Park Service only took over the place in 1971, after its private owner was forced to close it as an amusement park in 1968.
What the Park Service appropriated was a tourist trap that was succumbing to the forces of entropy. And that’s still the situation almost three decades later. The Park Service estimates it would take an eye-popping $20 million to rehabilitate the place and has tried several times since its takeover to negotiate with park lovers on a way to raise the funds. In 1987, the Park Service signed an agreement with a citizens’ group known as the Glen Echo Park Foundation, pledging to raise money for renovations. But so far, they’ve collected only $1 million.
Last fall, the Park Service decided it could wait no longer. Park Service employees proposed five options for the future of the park, ranging from a total rehabilitation—a fantasy in this funding era—to tearing down the buildings and making a nice grassy area suitable for Frisbee tossing.
Glen Echo’s self-appointed guardians freaked. They’ve succeeded in convincing the Park Service to postpone the decision until this fall, complaining that the public wasn’t adequately involved. But the Park Service makes a poor heavy in all of this—underfunded and struggling to keep parks going all over the country. It’s a miracle there’s even a Glen Echo to fight for.
The odds, budget, and futility of the fight matter not one bit to the park lovers hammering me with quotes and talking points. And their dedication to the place seems inexplicable. Before I walked into the vortex of loyalty, I’d never even seen the park, nor known it existed. And even now, I’ve only gotten a glimpse of the place, which is dark and shrouded in trees, through cab windows streaked with rain. What, I wonder, are all these people so crazy about?
It’s almost a month later, deep into spring, when I return to investigate the source of this localized hysteria, fully expecting to be overwhelmed by a majestic world, by an imposing, extraordinary place I’ve been a fool not to visit before. From first glance, Glen Echo Park seems every bit the fantasy world I anticipated. A large stone tower looms above the landscape, like the highest spire of a castle. A smattering of buildings sits below it, nestled in woodland and rolling hills.
To get to the park, I have to cross a wooden footbridge suspended over a shallow creek where, below me, water trickles over jagged rocks. Already a little disoriented by the place, I lean over the side to look down at the creek bed—I guess to see if this is all real—and all the blood rushes to my head, giving me a faint sort of fuzzy feeling. A little dazed, I continue up a newly paved path. I pass trees and brush, newly budding from the early spring weather. Pale yellow daffodils and sprigs of hyacinth bloom next to me. I’m not sure if it’s from the self-induced head rush or from the unfamiliar bucolic sights, but I am feeling a little giddy. And I think to myself, This is all too good to be true.
It is, as it turns out.
I reach the clearing of the park’s main grounds, where I expect an immense natural wonderland to just roll out before me. But the majesty I’ve glimpsed from a distance flakes away up close. The budding green turns into a dusty plot of land. And as I come closer to the buildings, I can see that they’re slowly rotting. Paint peels and whole portions of wood and plaster crumble away. Weeds and overgrowth poke through the floorboards and wallboards of the lurking skeletal structures.
Buildings that once housed amusement park rides stand as empty shells: The rides are gone, and the decaying structures are now used as open-air pavilions. In one corner of the park sits the historic and creakily magnificent Spanish Ballroom. Fresh paint brightens the trim of the building, but the faded yellow of the structure peels to reveal layers of color and wall beneath.
The Crystal Pool is completely bereft. Once a large, pristine watering hole, the crumbling building is now surrounded by rickety scaffolding. A peek through the planks of wood that board up the place reveal a jungle of tangled overgrowth inside. The remaining lighted letters above the place read, “Cry Poo.”
Only the Dentzel Carousel, which sits in the center of the park, looks as if it’s managed to fend off time and nature. The carousel is housed in a bright yellow building, circled with clear glass windows. A bell-shaped roof, painted in swirls of bright colors, tops the place. Peering through the windows, I can see the motionless monolith of a carousel inside. Most of the horses and giraffes and ostriches are faded and chipped, but some have been repainted with fresh coats of their original colors. The gold trim along the carousel has been buffed to a shine and gleams in the sunlight.
Apart from the carousel, the place is ruinous, really. It’s like a bone yard, where the buildings, strangled by overgrowth, stand as tombstones as much as edifices. I suppose I should be disappointed. And I am, in a way, because it’s easy to imagine how striking many of these structures once were. But I’m still romanced by the place. Glen Echo seems to engender a suspension of disbelief. Yeah, the place is going to hell, but in a very, very nice way. It’s easy to evoke grace from the still-standing structures, as decrepit as they may be. As a plastic grocery bag blows past me, I imagine myself the last person at a deserted carnival, where everyone, even the people running the rides, has walked away and left this place for me to find. It doesn’t matter that this carnival ended 30 years ago. The music remains.
“This may sound silly,” says Stan Fowler, a park ranger at Glen Echo. “But when everybody goes home at night, you can walk around the park, and you can just feel the energy. Just like in the ballroom. You can hear still hear the sounds.”
Fowler is dressed in standard park ranger garb: worn leather boots, a dirtied green jumpsuit with NPS insignia, heavy cloth gloves. His thinning brown hair is gathered in a short ponytail at the base of his neck. He tells me he stopped cutting his hair several years ago when his dog died because he heard it’s how some people mourn. He was only going to do it for six months, but since then, both his brother and brother-in-law have also died, so he just gave up on cutting.
Like a lot of rangers, Fowler is a talker, but he doesn’t confine himself to the naturalist script of many officers in green. When we first meet, he quotes from one of the Park Service manuals that says a ranger is supposed to know everything about his park, but I get the feeling Fowler knows a little bit about everything. He moves through quantum mechanics and pop psychology in between mention of the inventions he’s developed around the park: a new method for cleaning the wood floors in the ballroom, a way to keep pigeons from nesting in one of the buildings. “It’s a great place for a pseudoscientist,” he says of the park.
And then there are the times when Fowler’s rap leaves the plane of explainability. “It’s sort of like if you look at life two-dimensionally,” he says, using his long fingers to trace a circle on the table in front of us. “You’re sitting here in the hub with all these spokes going out of various things you’ve learned. If you take that and you fold them all up into a sphere and get out that 2-D plane, and it crosses again. It just curves around and crosses at another axis. And that axis for me, right now, is Glen Echo Park.”
Fowler is standing on a precariously balanced plank of wood beneath the sagging roof of the old Bumper Car Pavilion. Along with a few volunteers, Fowler has been working for the past couple of months to renovate the building. Sky-blue scaffolding surrounds the structure. Inside are a pyramid of red bricks and stacks of old, rotted boards, the victims of weather and termites. The roof above us—the one they are working to repair—looks as if it could become the floor in a hurry. But Fowler sees spiritual potential. “I leveled it myself, and it was like taking off a straitjacket,” he says. “Now the energy can flow through.”
On a recent Saturday night, Anne Bailey slides her gray Toyota Corolla to the side of the curb in front of my apartment. We’re on our way to a weekly swing dance—a legendary and well-covered cultural event—at the Spanish Ballroom. It’s 8:20 p.m. already, but she says we should still be able to catch the end of the free lesson, which is comforting to me. (Counting all three weddings I’ve been to, I’ve had more experience with the polka and the chicken dance than with any sort of swing thing.) Bailey is well-prepared for the event, dressed in a black-and-white dress, pink tights, and saddle shoes. The dress has twirl potential, and Bailey has her bangs gathered in a short ponytail at the top of her forehead. She’s what happens when grunge starts to swing.
At the park, we join the crowds of people, many dressed in jeans and sneakers, already streaming into the Spanish Ballroom. Outside, the park is at its best, bathed in the kind of reflected light that makes middle-aged people look like their high school yearbook photos. White lights outline the carousel, and neon sizzles through signs for a few of the amusement park rides. Even the missing letters in the neon seem planned, not a foreboding reminder of the park’s gradual dimming.
Inside, a couple in flashy zoot suits, with microphones strapped to their faces, lead the mob of amateurs in a mass dance lesson. They teach a step or two, play a few seconds of music so that the newcomers can practice their moves, and then instruct the couples to change partners. Bailey, an able dancer, sidesteps the lesson, sticking to the fringes of the ballroom. I, on the other hand, take a few swirls around the room before calling it quits. Not that I’m not having a good time. I am. I could bumble my way through a few more numbers, but my two left feet already ache, and I’m growing frustrated having to apologize to my usually more than understanding partners.
A little after nine, Peaches O’Dell, decked out in a green-sequined dress with gold curls atop her dreads, takes the stage. She warms up her band and then cuts loose. It doesn’t take long for the more advanced dancers to couple up and move to the center of the floor, their feet and arms flying. Most of the people practice the few steps they learned in the lesson or improvise with some of their own moves, but then gravitate around the real swingers. I watch from a safe distance at the side of the ballroom as Bailey dances with a tall, lanky guy dressed in high-waisted pants and suspenders. I don’t know a thing about swing, but they are exquisite to behold. Their faces are wide-mouthed with the kind of unabashed grins Washington is famous for not hosting.
By her age at least, Bailey would seem more likely to be spending her Saturday nights in the side bar at the Black Cat or joining the mob at the 9:30 Club.
“That’s not really my scene,” she says when I ask. “I come here mainly because I love to dance.” She adds that the Spanish Ballroom serves as a time machine, at least for a night. “It’s almost like paying respect to an era I didn’t get to live.”
I’m not allergic to the charms of the place, but then I’m not transported, either. True, there’s energy and joie de vivre, but most of it seems to
be coming from the middle-aged man gyrating next to me.
It’s not until I return to the ballroom during the day with Callen, the guy who caught me on the bench the first time I was here, that I get a sense that there is something else going on. It’s the kind of scene that turns writers—even young ones like me—all damp and misty. Sun streams through the windows, arranging itself artfully on the wooden-planked floor. Dust particles float in the shafts of light, giving the inside of the place a sort of clouded, dreamlike feel. I try to think of a synonym for the ambient energy that won’t sound soppy. I fail.
Callen is a bit more of a realist. “I’m not kooky about these energy things,” he says. “But there’s something about this building. I wouldn’t want to knock this down and put up a new building. There’s history here.”
On the way into the town of Glen Echo on a Saturday morning, the cabdriver argues with me about directions. He’s been sociable and pleasant, commenting on the warm weather and making the usual small talk of an urban cab ride. But at the knotted intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Goldsboro Road, I point to the narrow thread of blacktop we need to take, and he shakes his head. “You can’t go that way,” he argues. I point to a white four-door cruising in the exact direction I’ve indicated, and he retracts. “Oh,” he says. “I didn’t know they still had roads that small.”
Pulling off of MacArthur Boulevard, we descend into the ravine that engulfs the town of Glen Echo, population 300. It’s only a block or two from the busy roads, but light-years away from any sort of urban reality. Houses with full porches and manicured lawns and—honest to God—white picket fences line the streets. Unlocked cars with open windows are parked along the curb.
An unexpected site to me, the small town is equally disorienting to my cabdriver, who told me when we started the trip that he was unfamiliar with Northwest D.C., let alone this small-town anomaly. When we pull up to Betsy and Jamie Platt’s pale blue cottage at 6105 Yale Ave., he says, “Thank you for letting me drive you to this lovely area,” staring wide-eyed out the window.
The unlatched door to the Platts’ house slides open when I knock. I’m greeted by Jamie Platt, a Brooklyn native, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, sporting a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard. He shows me into the living room, a small but comfortable square decorated with overstuffed floral furniture and antiques. His wife Betsy is in the kitchen, making a pot of tea.
The Platts met at Glen Echo Park during a dance at the Spanish Ballroom. They married a year and a half later and bought a house on Capitol Hill. He pushed paper for the Social Security Administration. She was a law librarian. They spent most of their time at the park, though, attending and organizing activities. So when they found out they were expecting a daughter in 1993, they decided they might as well just move closer to their obsession.
“We knew we were going to be here all the time, anyway,” says Betsy. She has since become Glen Echo’s clerk-treasurer—the only paid position in the town, which also has a mayor and four councilmembers.
Betsy admits that the park has a tendency to make people, well, the tiniest bit crazy. “I think it might make us a little eccentric in some ways,” she says.
She qualifies her remark immediately, likely worried about disparaging her neighbors and fellow park supporters: “My point isn’t just that it’s a haven for the eccentric. It’s a place that accepts different people in a way that somehow it seems the larger community, certainly around Washington, has become less tolerant of.”
But the broader cultural commentary gradually ebbs, giving way to more Glen Echo mumbo jumbo. Like most of the people I talk with, she knows she sounds a little crazed, but she makes no apologies.
“I’m convinced there’s a magic rock under the park. It’s hard to find any other explanation,” she says. We’re walking through Glen Echo in the rain. Her umbrella is decorated with fluffy white clouds.
“It’s sort of like, you know how it is in Jerusalem? You hear about Jerusalem on the news, and everybody has definite opinions about who it should belong to, what should happen there. Glen Echo is that same kind of a place that inspires strong emotions,” she says, staring into the wet gravel in front of us. “It’s kind of like this is my place on Earth. I’m sure that’s how Jerusalem must feel.”
I keep going back to Glen Echo, each time finding someone who defines himself in part by the nine acres of park along the Potomac. On this Saturday, I meet up with Larry Sullivan, the guy whose blue eyes first transfixed me—in a very eerie, unsettling way—at that mobbed February meeting. I’ve asked him, with some hesitation, to meet me at the park on an unseasonably warm and sunny morning. We are sitting at a picnic table just outside the Spanish Ballroom, and he’s telling me how he hasn’t been able to get out to the park much lately because he’s been building a “sacred garden” in his backyard for the last six years.
Dressed in jeans and a striped button-down, wearing a blue baseball cap and sneakers, 50-year-old Sullivan looks more tourist than local savant. Sullivan came to the Glen Echo amusement park a few times as a child, but didn’t come again until the annual folk festival a few years ago. He says the draw of the park is that it’s the only “touchstone” in the county: “People hunger for a place where their elders went. They hunger for a place where people who are now dead went. It’s not a macabre thing….This is a place where people feed their souls.”
To be honest, I think Sullivan sounds a few bricks short of a load. But then he starts talking about hearing voices—from years ago—in the park.
“When I came down that walk, I had an instant flashback,” he says. “I could smell the aromas, hear the shrieks. I could smell it all, feel it all.”
I can’t dispute what he says. I don’t want to say I hear voices in the place—because I don’t, let’s be clear about thatbut there is something that runs through the park that won’t fit in my notebook. Glen Echo may be nothing but a cemetery of decaying buildings, but it’s a graveyard where spirits lurk close to the tombs.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.