The homeless folks who make the rounds on the blocks east of Dupont Circle have a few gathering places: a T Street alley between 16th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, a couple of alfresco restaurants on 17th Street, and the front doors of the 17th Street Safeway. These aren’t exactly Washington’s greatest haunts, even for vagrants, who get hassled by the cops and eyeballed by passers-by. Most importantly, there’s nowhere to sit.
Just a couple of years ago, they had it much better, lounging every day on the benches at a tiny public park on New Hampshire Avenue between S and T Streets NW. The park is one of those odd triangles bequeathed to Washington by L’Enfant’s penchant for slicing up the street grid with grand diagonal avenues. Surrounded on all sides by houses and condominiums, it’s a rare patch of green in a dense urban neighborhood.
But in recent years, that patch of green has become a battlegroundbetween drunks who abused the park and locals striving to reclaim it. In this battle, the drunks never had a chance: When the neighbors got together to fix up their triangle, they ripped out the benches.
The change has been tough to miss: The homeless have decamped to less-green pastures. Locals walk their dogs in the park. And for the old, the tired, the bored, or just the people who thought that parks were supposed to be local gathering places, there’s nowhere to sit. What began as a pleasant nook for urban neighbors is now a harmless little slice of antiseptic suburbia right here in the city.
S Street Park isn’t the only such battlefield. Citywide, neighborhoods have been getting together to clean up dicey public spaces. The improvements start with no-brainers like removing trash, erasing graffiti, and planting trees. But once the park activists realize that keeping the space clean entails keeping out the homeless, they take aim at benches. In the past several years, several D.C. parks have removed their benches, transforming themselves from public places to sit in into public places to walk past.
The drunks who once gathered at the S Street park demonstrated how to take a public space and make it a private pissing ground. When they finished their bottles, they threw them into the tall grass or onto the crumbling asphalt. They either ignored police attempts to disperse them or returned after a short walk. The garbage that they left behind sent a clear signal that the park didn’t really belong to its neighbors.
“Nobody walked through those parks” before the renovations, says Iris Molotsky, a T Street resident who organized the makeover. “People were calling the police every night.” In 1993, Molotsky posted notices asking for help cleaning up S Street Park as well as T Street Park, another sliver of green space in the neighborhood. With volunteer labor and funds raised in part from developers of the area’s tony condominiums, Molotsky’s Friends of S & T Streets Parks completely overhauled the triangles. Nowadays, “there are no police calls. People are using the parks. They’re happy to go there.”
The upgrade is striking: New grass has replaced outsized weeds; curb-your-dog signs have replaced human refuse. But, of course, nothing has replaced the old benches. “Those benches had to go,” explains Molotsky. “People were sleeping on them. Drunks were using them for beds. It was impossible.”
“The police were ineffective,” adds Heather Shaner, a neighbor who worked on the parks. “Taking the benches and shrubs out was effective. When we took the benches out, they left.”
Some of the vagrants that made life so unseemly at S and T Street Parks were no doubt refugees of a similar renovation project down the block, at the corner of 18th and T Streets. A small, rectangular recess at that corner was once a favorite loitering and boozing spot until a group of motivated neighbors stepped in to enclose the space with a sturdy iron fence.
Steve Coleman, whose Friends of Meridian Hill group spearheaded Malcolm X Park’s revival, says that without benches, a park is no longer a park. “Friends of Meridian Hill advised [Friends of S & T Streets Parks] to go in a different direction,” he explains. “While taking out the benches may seem like an easy solution, it generally creates problems and robs communities of gathering space.”
But neither touchy-feely notions of parks as gathering spaces, nor more basic things like the convenience of having a place to sit, were enough to dissuade neighbors increasingly wary of drugs, stench, and menace. “It’s really unfortunate,” says Molotsky, who says the benches were a contentious issue among the people who renovated the park. She argues that its current state “has proved that those who wanted to remove the benches were right, at least in the short run.”
The prevailing rationale at S and T Streets echoes in one of the city’s most liquor-drenched neighborhoodsMount Pleasant. When the Department of Parks and Recreation temporarily removed the benches from a public triangle at Park Road and Mount Pleasant Street as part of a routine upgrade, neighbors requested that they not be replaced. “People were hanging out and drinking and drugging,” explains former Mount Pleasant ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission) chair Robert Fleming.
The bench debate has shown up in Asbury Park as well, a triangle at 16th and Mount Pleasant Streets. The park is a notorious cesspool of public drinking and the filth that goes with it. But bench removal has some people thinking the baby is getting tossed out with the bathwater.
“My personal feeling is that taking out the benches is just giving up the park,” says Fleming, who still represents that district on the ANC. Rather than simply axing the benches, he has suggested rearranging them. He believes that closing the benches in a circleas opposed to the current row configurationwould contain the problem.
Public seats don’t even have to be traditional park benches to make the endangered species list. In order to discourage loitering, neighbors arranged to have walls around the trees in a public triangle at 13th Street and Vermont Avenue NW shortened from several feet to just a few inches off the groundno respite there. And over the past several years, Metro has responded to community requests by removing benches from bus shelters at 14th and P Streets NW and Minnesota Avenue and C Street SE.
Of course, even when they don’t have benches to lounge on, people don’t just disappear. In Mount Pleasant, many of the troublemakers who used to camp on the Park Road benches simply migrated over to Asbury Park. Molotsky, meanwhile, says she has seen some of the old S Street Park regulars in front of the 17th Street Safeway. But Shaner claims that of the 30 to 60 men who used to congregate in the park, only four or five still drink in the neighborhood.
Some bench-clearers even present their park improvement groups as latter-day versions of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, out to banish the devil alcohol and sew families back together. Shaner claims she’s seen people who are clean and sober because of the bench removal: “A lot of them are no longer drinking….They told me they couldn’t be there” in the benchless S Street Park. “They’d gone back to their families, where drinking wasn’t tolerated.”
Vagrants have always drank, slept, and loitered in city parks. Because benches offer a degree of comfort for all of those activities, any neighborhood discussions about derelict parks inevitably feature someone wanting to yank the benches. Unity Park, at the center of Adams Morgan, had its benches removed during a recent overhaul. Many neighbors wanted them removed permanently, but Steve Coleman, who played a key role in remaking that park, says the missing benches will reappear soon. As part of a compromise, the benches will not have backs, so as to discourage long-term lounging.
Nonetheless, Irene Iskander, who worked with Coleman on fixing up the park but was unaware of the benches’ imminent return, sounds the classic argument for bench removal. “It’s unfortunate; we don’t like it. But until certain people understand that these benches are there for beautification, not abuse, we can’t have them.” As for the argument that benches are a basic public amenity, Iskander notes that “in this day and age, most people don’t sit in parks. We all have back yards. The days of tenements where nobody has any space are over.”
Attitudes like that, says Coleman, got the parks into this mess. “We have forgotten what it’s like to have a civil society, where people can sit on their streets and stoops and parks.” He says the reluctance of locals to take control of their parks by plopping their butts on one of the benches is part of the problem. “It’s because they felt intimidated. But intimidation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he adds.
There are alternatives to out-and-out bench removal. Cities such as Los Angeles have tried to keep people from sleeping in parks by building benches with strategically placed spikes to keep people on their toes even when they’re off them. Less Draconian changes like creative bench layoutspread out, and away from hiding places and shrubs, for instancealso discourage illegal activity without eliminating seats. That kind of middle ground hasn’t been reached in D.C., though.
In its own crude way, the bench-clearing seems to be working. The S and T Streets Parks and the Park Road triangle are not the menacing spots they once were. Even if there’s nowhere to sit down, the spaces and the streets around them feel safer to neighborssomething essential in a city struggling to attract and retain middle-class families.
The long run is much less clear. Pulling benches out of parks may remove riff-raff, but it also kills a basic public amenity. Building walls and eliminating benches won’t erase the needs that drive people to camp in parks, whether it has benches or not. Like most urban problems, one neighborhood’s solution becomes another’s new problem. Homelessness and chronic addiction don’t disappear; they simply migrate.
“It takes a great leap of faith to make a public space work,” says Coleman. Or a little impatience, some intolerance, and a 16-pound sledgehammer. CP