One day last November, two men had something of a brawl on the Kennedy Playground at 7th and O Streets NW. According to a police report, they threw a few punches in between shoving each other around. One of the men ultimately lost his footing and landed on a broken sewer cover, breaking his ankle. While he was down, the other man allegedly kicked him in the head. When it was over, one man went to the hospital and the other was arrested.
In a neighborhood where sirens are a regular feature in the daily symphony, the playground scuffle hardly topped the weekly crime stats. Other, more menacing events would normally have eclipsed the whole mess, except that the combatants were both neighborhood leaders who have made it their business to rub out, rather than engage in, violence.
The alleged victim is Darryl Moment, community affairs director of the I Have a Dream Neighborhood Association. The alleged aggressor is ANC 2C02 Commissioner Leroy Thorpe. And the fight erupted during a meeting of a broad coalition of residents and local agency representatives dedicated to fixing up the Kennedy Playground.
(The U.S. Attorney’s office has charged Thorpe with simple assault, and he is scheduled to go to trial in May. If convicted, he could serve up to six months in jail and pay $1,000 in fines. And Moment, who was out of work for two and a half months afterwards, is now suing the District for $1 million for failing to repair the sewer cover he fell on. If he wins, Moment says he’ll donate the money to the playground rehab.)
Neither Thorpe nor Moment can articulate exactly what sparked their scuffle. But witnesses and other community members the fight mirrors a broader conflict brewing between Shaw’s established residents and an influx of upscale, urban pioneers moving east from Logan Circle to take advantage of the neighborhood’s historic architecture and potentially increasing property values.
Thorpe’s willingness to put his muscle where his mouth is comes as no surprise to people in the neighborhood. Since 1988, Thorpe has patrolled the streets of Shaw with a baseball bat and a bullhorn, chasing drug dealers and reclaiming turf on behalf of the neighborhood. As a community organizer, Thorpe established the anti-drug crusade known as Citizens Organized Patrol Efforts (COPE), or the Red Hats. The Red Hats differ from the better-known but less-controversial “Orange Hats” in that Thorpe—a sunni Muslim and a licensed social worker—also seeks to “reclaim” the criminals through jobs, education, and drug treatment.
First District Police Inspector Alfred Broadbent says, “His mission is to improve the quality of life of that community. The small group he works with has been pro-active in keeping the drug dealers on their toes….Where they’re active, it has caused the criminal element to be displaced.”
But Thorpe’s critics—all of whom refused to talk on the record—argue that he isn’t as effective as he is loud. They fault him for spewing unconstructive rhetoric aimed at keeping newcomers out of the neighborhood, particularly upper-income whites and gays who are prominent in Logan Circle’s revival.
Even among his supporters, there’s a consensus that Thorpe’s hot temper and single-mindedness have riled various people, including some police officials and other neighborhood activists—most recently, Darryl Moment. Moment is a successful Buppie, emblematic of the new wave of Shaw residents. Neighborhood activists suggest that Moment and his gentrifying ilk threaten Thorpe’s long-established position as neighborhood boss.
Thorpe concedes he’s conflicted about the potential gentrification of the neighborhood—the new money and development pose a real dilemma for his constituents. While the downtown arena and convention center promise to bring jobs and increased police protection into Shaw, the accompanying development has the potential to price existing residents out of the community. Thorpe says that it has nothing to do with race; he is merely looking out for vulnerable, working-class people who live in Shaw.
“With the arena and the convention center, you’re going to have escalated real estate prices and displacement of long-term residents,” Thorpe explains. “You’re talking about the demographics changing, and I don’t think the long-term residents of Shaw have conceived how this may change their lives.”
Deeply scarred by the riots of 1968, Shaw never really recovered. The neighborhood is riven with crime, unemployment, and drug addiction. But today Shaw stands to have an increasingly visible role in city affairs because it directly abuts the city’s two biggest development projects of the decade—the downtown sports arena and the new convention center. These projects could uplift the social fabric of Shaw and increase its desirability to more financially (and politically) savvy urbanites.
Already, new arrivals have taken an interest in remaking the neighborhood. Last year, Susan Alexander, a two-and-a-half-year Shaw resident and a staffer at the nonprofit housing organization Manna Inc., got Johns Hopkins University to fund a neighborhood leadership training program. The effort culminated on June 14, when a host of local agencies and community groups officially christened the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Council (SNIC).
Alexander says the group is trying to take an approach to community empowerment different from the old Saul Alinsky model, in which residents would focus their attention on a common enemy and hammer him down. Instead, SNIC is attempting to rally people around a project they can all agree on—in this case, fixing up the Kennedy Playground.
The playground has a long and tortured history in the neighborhood. After the ’68 riots, the family of the late Robert F. Kennedy Jr. donated money to landscape the park and purchase amusement rides, including a plane, a boat, a train, and a long slide built into the side of a big hill. But the D.C. government allowed the amusement rides to fall into disrepair, and—after being deemed unsafe for children—they were removed in the ’70s.
For the past two years, Shaw residents have tried to get the city to tear down the playground’s hill because it had become a haven for prostitution and drug use. The Department of Public Works (DPW) dragged its feet and slowly pecked at the project, hauling away a single dump truck full of dirt from the hill each week.
Last spring, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans intervened, and DPW picked up the pace, but it still hasn’t finished the job. Through SNIC, Alexander and other residents have enlisted groups—Bread for the City, the Zacchaeus Free Clinic, the United Planning Organization, For Love of Children—to help speed up the effort to reclaim and rejuvenate the playground.
“We’re trying to build unity, not divisiveness,” says Alexander.
It seems to be working. Even though Moment and Thorpe were literally at each other’s throats in the middle of this playground, they both agree it has tremendous symbolic and practical value to the neighborhood.
“Initially we had problems [with the playground task force]. People that tried to keep me out. People came with different perceptions and agendas,’’ Thorpe says. “But we got it together. It’s a learning process. You have to respect people where they live. I think it’s coming along just fine.”
In fact, even after last winter’s playground rumble, MPD Inspector Broadbent confirms that crime in Shaw is down. Thorpe says volunteer architects are drafting new designs for the playground renovation. Alexander is organizing residents to lobby Congress to ensure that Kennedy receives sufficient financial resources from the city. The hill is almost gone, the basketball court lights are fixed. And surprisingly, Moment and Thorpe both come to playground task force meetings—in spite of a court order issued to keep them apart. The playground, it seems, is still one thing they can agree on.—Stephanie Mencimer