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At about 8:30 on a cool, pristine Sunday morning, Frank Graves appears at the southeast corner of Kalorama Park, ready to clean the untidy strip of grass that runs parallel to Columbia Road. He begins work at the very edge of the corner, as if it’s the start of the world and he can get the whole shebang clean by noon if he just works hard enough. His tools are simple: rake, shovel, broom, wheelbarrow, and cardboard box.
Graves is a fastidious sweeper, hands wide apart gripping the broom handle, movements short, furious. He wears a short-sleeved white undershirt and anklet socks, looking more like the male half of a Baltimore mom-and-pop-store team than a rebel horticulturist. People pass Graves and say good morning, part of that intimate, friendly feeling of being the few up at this hour. Graves tersely replies. For the rest of the morning, people silently stare at him as they walk by.
He is a hard worker, the only hard worker around. For the rest of the morning, Graves alternates raking and sweeping the grass clippings and loose soil, making sure to include the short bank at the edge of the park, and venturing out into the street, slipping the broom underneath the cars and a lone pickup truck.
People like Graves; they admire his intellect, his persistence, his bringing public space in Kalorama back to life, but they are hogtied by his mouth. Carolyn Covington, who has been working for the last 20 years at the Altamont Apartments, a towering, grand apartment building on Wyoming Avenue, warmly praises Graves’ work but utters the same cautionary refrain heard throughout the neighborhood. “When you get started talking with him, it’s over. Your life is over. Mr. Graves is going to marry you in conversation,” Covington says.
He is impossible to rein in when talking, a quarter horse gone roll-eyed wild at the race track. And it’s not just empty chatter. Graves, semiretired from his work as an economist for technology-related institutes and the inventor of a method for remotely recharging postage meters, easily describes the physics of a rainbow or the theory behind scientific management, or elaborates on zephyr winds and classical music. The exacting talk, the precise slide of words from one free-associated topic to another, is the bane of his existence, the heart of his genius, and maybe the reason so many find fault with his do-goodism.
Graves’ episodic stories usually take root in his four or five most dramatic gardening experiences. But it is the details, the endless sea of details, that makes each rendition a mosaic. His cleanup in 1983 of the area behind the Gen. McClellan monument, where California Street crosses Connecticut Avenue, provides a handy launching pad for a story:
“While I was doing this then, these people [from the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation on California Street] would send a lady out to watch me. Do you know Picasso’s blue period, 1900 to 1904? At the National Gallery there is a startling painting of his called The Tragedy, showing a woman and two men, a man and a younger boy, with apparently the Mediterranean Sea behind them, and a drowning has occurred. And they look very, very forlorn. She was standing like this, and she looked just like the lady in the picture. She did. She evoked that portrait. She had a gabardine coat on, which originally I guess had been green, but it was so old now that the lower part of it had turned to a kind of purply color. It wasn’t worn out or shredded, but the dye had collapsed from age the way it will. Certain dyes are not light-stable, as you know, and over a period of time they will decay in a way. So she had a very old garment on, and she had a forlorn face, a very skinny face, [she was] a tall angular lady, and so she looked very, very unhappy. And she was standing this way and watching. With her head straight up and just watching.”
And that’s just the beginning of a story. Graves has been living in the District since 1971, almost all of it in the Gelmarc Towers on Columbia Road, a tall apartment building with a Soviet-style façade, grim and a little dirty. In 1982, Graves noticed a wooden sign in the triangular park in front of the Shawmut Apartments, a block up the street, inviting the public to adopt the park. Graves examined the work requiredincluding new benches and a $10,000 price tagand decided instead to begin with a more modest effort at triangle No. 304 at Columbia Road and Wyoming Avenue, across the street from his building. Volunteers like Graves were part of a desperate effort by the bereft District to find someone, anyone, to nurse public spaces back to a friendly temperament.
Graves got the park’s blueprint from the National Park Service, and in the same year began work on the tiny space, with its two magnolia trees. He pulled out weeds from the brick walk and the lawn, designed a red-eyed whale out of zinnias, tilled the soil and seeded it with grass, all with a borrowed spade and his own money. But as nice as it all sounds, Graves evoked the wrath of some neighbors, from verbal complaints to death threats. It’s hard to tell if Graves, an eccentric 68-year-old, suffers from an edge of paranoia or if he just keeps rubbing people the wrong way with his civic-oriented gardening.
His first disagreement was with Jackie, a Gelmarc neighbor who used No. 304, as did others in the neighborhood, as a giant litter box for her two dogs. Graves said he asked her to use the tree at the end of the park for the dogs. Graves, in that way of talking he haslow tone, all urgencymakes it clear that an epic conflict ensued.
“She came across the bit of green grass to where I was in the middle of that brick patch,” Graves says as we sit in the lobby of his building. He points across the street in a way that makes it clear he hasn’t forgotten any of it.
“She bent way over, picked up a handful of dirt with her right hand, she put the two leashes in her left hand, and she looked at me up and down. Then she turned it over and threw it right on my little shoes, except they were so worn at the time the laces were undone. And she dropped it on my foot and knocked my shoe off.
“She was very stocky but not too tall. She picked up the other shoe and now went skittering out into the roadway between the two parked cars to throw my shoe away. As I said at the time, it was not a new shoe but it was my shoe, and I had two feet, and I needed my other shoe. I grabbed her by the arm, and I wrestled her. She was very strong, her arms were three times the size of yours and twice the size of mine. A very powerfully built lady. She looked maybe as if she were a power swimmer. God in heaven, she started to scream bloody Mary. The windows all around were filled with faces. It was just like the movies. ‘What’s Frankie doing with the lady in red?’”
Over the last 14 years, Graves has remade much of the space he moves through. He has rehabilitated three small triangle parks, sliverlike orphans of grass and trees spawned by Pierre L’Enfant’s placement of diagonal grand avenues over a grid of city streets. In all, Graves has cared for 70 tree boxes as far down as the Washington Hilton, put in a side garden and Victorian bench at the 7-Eleven on Wyoming Avenue, transformed Kalorama Park, lobbied for upkeep at the McClellan monument, and planted flowers on California Street. He does it with occasional checks from neighbors; he does it with his own money and against all odds, despite the ugly medusa of the Department of Public Works and well-meaning ANC groups who put everything into slow-motion. He knows the city laws and ordinances inside out, and with information gleaned from a horticulture class at UDC, and his watching to see how people use public space, he has methodically dismantled and rebuilt the parks. Over time, what the city wouldn’t do and what neighbors never thought to do, Graves has done.
“If you have a head on your shoulder, you love Graves,” says Bob Laughlin, an employee at Manoukian Brothers, a business that has been selling rugs for 26 years on Columbia Road. Laughlin admires Graves’ transformation of Kalorama Park, once a home to homeless alcoholics, into a place for the entire neighborhood. “He is one of the unsung heroesa little eccentric, but he’s earned it,” Loughlin says.
Paul Manoukian, the store’s owner, remembers Graves’ escapade with the Russian Federation during the Cold War years. While working in front of the building housing their trade mission, Graves says that he was frequently hassled by the Secret Service. He was working on his 189 zinnias when he was arrested on Aug. 20, 1984, for cutting flowers in a public space, his arresting officer said. The trip downtown only served to steel his resolve to remake the area around the building.
“He’s an outstanding community activist who lets his hands and body do the talking,” Manoukian says. “They should clone him and do the same things for the next blocks.”
The yew and Japanese maple trees near the 7-Eleven are his work, and the bench came out of his own pocket. In the same year he did those deeds, Graves began on No. 305, the triangle park across from the 7-Eleven, a popular spot for late-night taxi drivers to have a coffee. He removed most of the bricks, hauled in rich new topsoil, and planted daffodils and a cherry tree. Graves is more of a fix-up man, a jack-of-it-all, than a pure gardener.
The sense of prerogative that drove Graves’ decision to remove the bricks irritated Lawrence, a neighbor in his building. There was a year of tension and threats, Graves says. Then, one afternoon in 1984, when Graves was returning from a jog, he saw Lawrence dressed in a lumberjack shirt, rushing furiously up the slope of the driveway. “He was going to attack me when my irises were shrunk from the brilliant sunshine,” Graves says. “He was going to kill me in the dark of the garage, where there were no witnesses. I know he raised cats. Cats follow anything moving.”
The two men talked outside the building, and Lawrence held open the door for Graves, all the while making what Graves called “a grand mal set of facial gestures.” Lawrence followed Graves, who was carrying two garden hoses, up the stairway of the building. They continued debating. On the second-floor landing, Graves turned to go into the hallway. He says Lawrence hit him in the back of the head with a paper bag containing a hamburger and onions. The stairwell was strewn with fried onions, pieces of meat, and bun.
Graves’ innumerable collection of stories are all good-guy-vs.-the-forces-of-banality, many filled with references to police and legal codes.
“He is an eccentric type of person who loves a good fight,” says Tom Mabon, an ex-Shawmut resident. “Frank looks at things kind of negatively, a living Murphy’s lawanything that can go wrong will.”
Mabon lived in the Shawmut from 1985 to 1993. He and his partner began working on the park across 19th Street, donating plants paid for with their own money. Graves had worked on the triangle, No. 305A, in 1985. He helped get benches and new concrete uprights put in, did some gardening, and turned the fountain back on. By the time Mabon began, drinkers and drug-users were regular evening guests, and the park had fallen into disarray. Mabon says that when he and his partner first began tending the park, Graves would cross the street to avoid talking with them. But eventually Graves opened up, even giving them a two-page list of all the city institutions they should contact.
“I got a big kick from Frank. I wound him up sometimes just to see him go off,” Mabon says.
But for all his talking, Graves is likable enough. He’s got a good sense of humor, an ear for the story, and has had a domino effect on the neighborhood. The Shawmut officially adopted the park, and some residents from the Altamont work on the other triangle, planting flowers and picking up the trash. Neighbors have organized the “Friends of Kalorama Park.”
William Scheirer, secretary for the Adams Morgan ANC and a neighborhood activist since 1967, says Graves was the guru of the community gardens in Kalorama Park, a vastly successful initiative that transformed a marginal hedged-in space into a community resource.
The legacy of the man with the long stories and even longer track record becomes apparent the more time you spend in the neighborhood. Sandra Reischel, who has lived in Graves’ building for more than 25 years, began gardening over two years ago, rehabilitating a small corner of Kalorama Park. “He’s done so much,” Reischel says. “I’ve been indirectly influenced by him.” Reischel thinks Graves, like herself, became as much invested in the social activity of gardening as in the work itself.
Graves leads the conflicted life of a lone ranger who secretly wants to ride with the other cowboys. Peter Schott, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, says that Graves was sensational in helping the association come up with dollar figures for a transportation project they were working on, but that it’s difficult to get him to work within a set of guidelines.
Graves tends to be critical of the other, informally organized, neighborhood gardeners. He cut off relations with some of the Altamont gardeners after they wouldn’t lend him equipment, and although he praises the upkeep done by the Shawmut adopters of triangle No. 305A and the beauty of the flowers, he chides them for their inability to keep the area free of weeds.
He has a sharp-edged confidence about his own work. “People are not as qualified as me,” Graves says. “I’m different.”
Graves grw up in Wellesley Hills, Mass., the youngest of six children, his father an educator and mother a pianist. “I grew up in a house where we had to do everything,” Graves says. “I grew up with a family which was enormously competent. I have to say that it was a privilege, it was a real privilege. If everybody could grow up in a family such as minethey have a bad side, but they have a wonderful, good side, too. Here was a family where the world was just a great big oyster to be dealt with, all kinds of wonderful things.”
Neighborhood residents recall a time years ago when Graves was putting in the big hours. “For years he knocked himself out six or seven days a week,” says Malen Leonard, one of the Altamont gardeners. In the early ’90s Graves went back to consulting work to help fund his patent filings for his postage-meter invention. His latest project has left him with less time for gardening. What was a streetlong vengeance has been reduced to two spots, sweeping and tending his rose shrubs
in front of the Russian Federation.
Graves has always plowed ahead when the ANC or some other bureaucratic organization asked for just a little more time. “Nature doesn’t wait,” Graves frequently says. And he isn’t saying this phrase gently. There is an underlying, disturbing quality to the phrase, a militancy born of experience.
Graves has two theories about nature: 1.) If there is a vacuum, nature will fill it; 2.) Nature’s pure state is chaos. Neither bodes well for his work. The triangle across from the Altamont looks a little under the weather. The side yard at the 7-Eleven is overgrown. Five pounds of roofing cement fell on the bench, and then a car mowed it down. The 7-Eleven triangle is the worst of all. Cups and trash are heaped under the shrubs, and there are big bare patches with no grass or plants. But Graves looks at his workeverything that has collapsed or become overgrownforgivingly. It’s tough for one guy to triumph over the forces of entropy.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.