Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Joe Malone is homeless, but he’s got one of the best back yards in the District. Creeping canopies of vines and interlaced branches dapple shadows on the ground outside his tent. Thick stands of bamboo line a mile-long trail leading to a wooden footbridge crossing a river pool. An eclectic mix of trees—mulberries, trees of heaven, yellow locusts, box elders, silver maples, oleanders, and more—color the landscape of this lush 40-acre island in the Anacostia River that Malone calls home.
But Malone’s island life of leisure in Southeast Washington may be about to end. After 14 years of jobless freedom, he’s just had an offer of employment. He didn’t go looking for a job—one day a man came tramping into Malone’s campsite, introduced himself as Mr. Goodwin and out of the blue offered Malone a full-time gig as a security guard. The job would come with a trailer to live in, Goodwin said, fully wired for electricity.
Malone is tempted. He’s been living in a tent for a long time. Still, he has a nagging doubt that keeps him on the fence. “Mr. Goodwin just seemed like he was hiding something,” he says.
Mr. Malone is right about Mr. Goodwin. Goodwin is a developer, and it’s not Malone’s services he wants—it’s Malone’s island.
Larry Goodwin is a very fortunate man. He has a benefactor—a contessa, in fact— and a line on a 30-year, no-money-down, no-payments-of-any-kind development lease on Kingman and Heritage Islands, a couple of small slivers of dredge in the Anacostia River.
Exactly what Goodwin has in mind for these islands isn’t altogether clear, but he’s got a number of ambitious ideas.
“We’ll have this 70-foot body laid out, and maybe you’ll be over here getting the kidney to work, and somebody else’ll be over there getting the pancreas to work,” he says, wiggling his fingers in front of him as if playing air piano. “We’ll call it the Miracles of Medicine.”
You’re not into body parts? How about a good old-time acid trip? Step into the “Infinite Crystal and the Enchanted Crystal Forest,” and experience the “hall of mirrored surfaces,” where “reflected light will move through you and give you the sense of weightlessness. Light will seem to pass right through your body.”
Switch mediums and you can try the giant aquarium, where you can stroll in a glass-walled tunnel through a replica of an undersea canyon. Or the theater designed by magician Doug Henning specifically for magic shows. (“Doug wants 150 days a year himself,” Goodwin gloats.)
At one point, Goodwin’s partner, Carroll Harvey, starts talking about dinosaurs, but Goodwin shushes him. “We’re not supposed to say anything about the dinosaurs,” Goodwin says to Harvey. Harvey turns to me. “Just say we’ve had a couple people talk to us about dinosaurs.”
When Goodwin and Harvey talk about their redecoration plan for the two islands, (they’ll rename the spot Children’s Island and charge in the neighborhood of $15 per child), the air is thick with whimsy, goodness, and light.
“We will make this island the crown jewel, the eastern gateway to the city,” promises Harvey.
“We will provide between 1,700 and 2,400 jobs and generate $8.9 million in sales taxes for the District of Columbia,” he says.
“We will spend a minimum of 75 percent of our revenues on scholarships, youth programs, and business assistance programs for the community,” says Goodwin. “This is by nature a philanthropic project.”
Even with all those numbers and the visionary rap, Goodwin and Harvey have had a tough time hustling endorsements from neighborhood groups and civic associations. Part of the problem is their pitch. Goodwin is quiet and cautious to a fault, while Harvey is absolutely out of control. He’s a big guy, well over 6 feet, and he paces the floor with one mitt wrapped around a telescoping pointer that resembles a torn-off car antenna. When he wants your attention he comes at you like he’s going to run you through with it and doesn’t stop until the tip is against your chest and you’re pinned to the chair. Once you make a noise that persuades him you’ve taken his point, he finally backs off.
Goodwin and Harvey’s presentation has not been a hit with the locals. The pair left the Kingman Park Civic Association, which represents the area just north of RFK Stadium, feeling overwhelmed. “They brought their maps, their photos, they brought everything,” says Frazer Walton Jr., president of the association. “We were frightened to death.” Their request for an endorsement was smashed by a 40-0 vote against.
Close neighbors aren’t the only ones who are less than enthralled by the Children’s Island concept. Substantial opposition is also coming from environmentalists incensed by the fact that the two islands used to be federal parklands and are now being handed over to private interests for commercial development. And it’s coming from professional city planners aghast at the idea of such a circus as Goodwin and Harvey have in mind anchoring the eastern end of the federal monument core.
“Think about King’s Dominion jammed into 50 acres,” says Dick Wolf, chair of the planning commission of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. “I don’t think it requires three Philly lawyers and the Supreme Court to tell you that this is not consistent with the comprehensive plan for the District of Columbia.”
The two islands were created in the 1920s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Anacostia channel, drained the surrounding swamplands, and dumped the fill near the river’s western shore. Kingman, the larger of the two, is long and narrow and sits out near the middle of the river on the edge of the boating channel, with the 6-acre Heritage Island just to the west. A small pool known as Kingman Lake sits nestled between Heritage and the shore.
The organization today known as National Children’s Island Inc. (NCI) actually dates back to the mid-1970s. A joint creation of the District and the National Park Service, NCI’s original mission was to build a small children’s park on Kingman and Heritage Islands as part of the city’s celebration of the Bicentennial. This was when wooden footbridges were built connecting the islands to the river’s western shore, as well as a small children’s park with playhouses, sandboxes, jungle gyms, and obstacle courses.
But as so often happens, the District lacked the cash to follow through on its commitment. Since the Park Service wasn’t interested in maintaining or improving the islands either, the D.C. Council in 1981 brought Goodwin onto the board of NCI and told him to go out and seek private funding. A former vice president for planning and development of Federal City College, the predecessor to what is now the University of the District of Columbia, Goodwin went out and, while beating the bushes, fell into a gold mine.
One November evening in 1981, Goodwin received a visit from a business acquaintance who had taken on as a client a London woman named the Contessa Bina Sella di Monteluce. The contessa was seeking a way to combine her interests in philanthropy and business in some sort of endeavor that would benefit children, the man said. Did Goodwin know of a suitable project?
With the contessa’s money behind the project, it began to mutate. A concept that had begun life as a small children’s playground—swing sets, that sort of thing—expanded steadily over the years until it became what it is today: a monster blueprint for a Disneyesque carnival with dinosaurs, 70-foot human bodies, and crystal mountains.
Indian by birth, married to an Italian count, and living in London, the contessa has no deep ties to the District. She seldom visits, and deals with Goodwin mostly through representatives. But as the daughter of a successful metals-refining magnate and a board member of the Inlaks Foundation, a Liechtenstein-based charitable organization with operations in Nigeria and India, the contessa controls quite a pot of lucre.
Harvey says that since her recruitment, the contessa has spent $7 million on salaries, legal fees, and various studies of Children’s Island without seeing a dime of return on her investment. (What’s more, he says she’s perfectly willing to keep on spending until the park is built, and he estimates construction costs will be $120 to $150 million.)
But what if somebody with community spirit, a concern for kids, and a lot of money—a foundation, say, or maybe even a princess—were to offer to clean up the islands, put in some bike trails or something, and maintain them indefinitely as community parks, free of charge, open to everyone?
Both men launch a double-barrelled rapid-fire verbal barrage—“They can’t do that! It’s too late!” Goodwin yells. “Do you know how much money we’ve spent on this thing? Seven million dollars!” Meanwhile, Harvey shouts, “There are 1,700 people who would lose their jobs!”
People tend to get most excited about great philanthropic purposes that involve pouring lots and lots of concrete, not paving a couple of bike paths. Think of the trees that will have to be cut down, the fences that will have to be put up, and the asphalt that will have to be poured, in the making of Children’s Island.
It makes sense when you find out that Harvey, the patron saint of Children’s Island, is chairman and CEO of Faith Construction Co., a District-based asphalt contractor. Before that, he was director of the city’s Department of General Services, back during Marion Barry’s first term as mayor. Before that, he helped Barry start Pride Inc. Needless to say, over the past 15 years, Faith Construction has thrived on a steady diet of set-aside city contracts for road and highway construction and repair. Since the company was founded in 1981, its annual volume has grown more than fourfold.
But the city government isn’t the trough for the mayor’s friends it used to be. The money’s gone, there’s a control board in charge now, and contracts are under a microscope.
One hundred and fifty million of the contessa’s dollars will buy a lot of asphalt.
Realistically, none of the neighborhood opposition nor the charges of environmental racism (“Could you imagine such a monstrosity being perpetrated in a white area—for example, on Roosevelt Island?” asks Julius Lowery, former president of the Kingman Park Civic Association) will slow this project down, because the deal is wired. In addition to paying for the usual traffic evaluations, economic feasibility studies, and whatnot, the contessa’s bankroll has bought a lot of juice.
The opposition to the tarted-up Children’s Island looked tough to begin with. In 1993, the Park Service was transferring jurisdiction of the islands to the District government, which had promised to lease them to NCI for the purpose of developing Children’s Island. But then the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund Inc. sued in federal court over whether the transfer complied with relevant environmental laws. It didn’t, the court eventually decided.
But the court’s ruling didn’t matter. By the time it came out, Goodwin and Harvey had executed a brilliant quick-snap end-around and were already 20 yards downfield. They had gone out and hired David Wilmot, a D.C. lobbyist who for years has been one of Eleanor Holmes Norton’s most important and reliable fund-raisers. Norton introduced a bill in Congress to transfer title—not just jurisdiction, but actual title—of the islands to the District government and proceeded to write “Dear Colleague” letters to members of both the House and Senate. The bill stalled in the 1994 Congress but sailed through this year. After a last-ditch effort to shame President Clinton into vetoing the bill failed, it became law last month.
As a result, the D.C. government is set to take title to the islands, at which time the Island Development Corp., the for-profit subsidiary of NCI, will obtain a 30-year development lease on the islands for nothing, and opponents will be left to bleat about the unfairness of it all.
These guys are good. And thorough, too. When I ask Goodwin whether he could put me in touch with anyone who lived in the neighborhood and who supported the plan, he gives me the name of John McGee, former president of the River Terrace Civic Association. He fails to mention that McGee, as an officer of the board and an occasional contractor to the project, stands to make some money if the place is ever built.
It’s actually a little ridiculous. No matter who you speak to, Goodwin or Harvey has already gotten to them. Even Joe Malone, on the day I first met the man after accidentally stumbling into his campsite, was sitting there, more than a mile back in the woods on the island’s farthest tip, holding a chit from Goodwin in his hand.
Really, you can’t help but admire that kind of painstaking attention to detail.
All the pissing and moaning from environmentalists about the loss of Children’s Island drives Harvey crazy. “They call it pristine wilderness. It’s a dump! A dump! It’s been one for years. Here we are, trying to do something positive, clean up this mess, and they’re fighting us, to the detriment of the District of Columbia. It’s dishonest and dishonorable.”
He’s right about one thing, at least: The islands are a dump. City trucks can access Kingman Island from the Benning Road Bridge, and for years they’ve been dumping leaves, brush, and trash along a track that follows the island’s eastern shore. It ain’t your rats-the-size-of-dogs picking party, but peeking through the vegetation or floating in the shallows along this track is a smorgasbord of junk, including pipes from old playground equipment, auto parts, tires, chunks of concrete, wads of paper, and magazines.
In the middle of the island, the pastoral path you’re following suddenly and weirdly opens out into what looks like a parking lot—a stretch of cracked asphalt some 20 yards square that has you looking around for the Korean liquor store that must be hidden in the bushes somewhere. This inexplicable piece of dead-end road is all that’s left of the improvements the city made to the island 20 years ago for the Bicentennial celebration. This spot used to be a playground; now it’s where liquor bottles go to die.
If you listen to the environmentalists talk, you get the sense that some of them care more about the effect of this issue on Yellowstone National Park than on Kingman Park. Their eyes are on the national precedent. And some of their yearning defies common sense. In an editorial in the July 14 Washington Post, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the islands “the most beautiful green space in our nation’s capital” and wrote, “Here the river, with no adjacent roads or houses, is a stunning, unbroken primeval landscape where community residents fish, picnic, and boat.”
Primeval landscape? For a pair of dredge islands, they ain’t bad, but they sure as hell ain’t primeval. They were built by the Seabees, fer crissakes. And let’s just hope that Kennedy isn’t actually eating the fish he’s catching on those picnics of his, what with the Pepco plant being just upriver and all. Islander Malone knows the local fauna: “I caught a fish once here, and it tasted real bad. Like oil and metal. Couldn’t eat it. Never again.” Malone does his shopping at the Safeway on Benning Road.
It’s not as if the environmentalists are out of their skulls. Just because the islands are built out of river dredge and have been used as a trash can since doesn’t mean they are without charms. Robert Boone, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, can take you for a short walk from the parking lot at RFK into a world you never would have guessed would be inside the District. Cut through a path in the woods and it opens up until suddenly you see what Boone and others have in mind. Right in front of you, a weatherbeaten wooden footbridge arches gently over a pool of still water some 80 yards wide, dropping softly onto the near shore of a lush, green island. In the pool, egrets of brilliant white and camouflage gray strut and poke in the shallows along banks hidden by thick, green trees. In the shimmering summer distance, another wooden footbridge, this one much longer than the first, rises from the island’s far shore and stretches to a second island farther out in the channel. The vista is beautiful, magical, and breathtaking in its unexpectedness.
Once you’re actually on the islands themselves, the mounds of trash tend to dispel any mystical notions you may have about man’s oneness with nature and all that. And yet…you look around and you can’t help but see that nature wants these islands. And she’d have them soon enough, if the city ever stopped dumping on them.
“The last eagle’s nest sighted in D.C. was on Heritage Island in 1946,” Boone says. “Right here, right in the middle of it.”
Joe Malone has never met the contessa. She’s never visited his camp or met his dog or heard him discourse on trees or tell how beautiful the island looked after last year’s snow. If she should ever drop in, though, he’s got a request. He’s been thinking, and he’s got some ideas of his own for improving the island and maybe doing something for kids, too. She could help.
“If she’d come in here and clean it up a bit and cut out some of the small brush, that’d be great. That’d be all I needed. Then we could bring kids in here and teach ’em how to split wood.”
It would probably cost a bit less than $150 million. And it would probably mean a lot more to the children of this city.CP