For years, Unity Park offered a sanctuary for the beleaguered rat community of Adams Morgan. The tiny, triangular island of pavement and dirt (bounded by Columbia, Champlain, and Euclid Streets NW) provided fertile ground for rat holes of repose after nightly raids on the garbage cans and kitchens of Phyllis Richman’s favorite exotic bistros. The deftly engineered tunnels presented a model of urban-vermin planning praised by animal rights activists and environmentalists alike. Thanks to cutbacks in city services (exterminators et al.), the park had recently become a sort of Club Med for D.C.’s trendier rodents and upscale Stuart Littles, advertised by snort of snout from Anacostia to Dupont Down Under.
But now things have changed at El Parque de las Ratas, as Spanish-speaking locals have long called it.
Earlier this month, a group of locals gave the park a complete makeover. They were sick of waiting for Mayor Marion Barry to fulfill another of his forgotten campaign promises: Less than a year ago, Barry had stood defiantly in Rat Park and announced to a small gathering of rats, drunks, and other supporters that, if elected, he would clean up the place. (Not an especially Herculean boast—after all, the park’s smaller than a playground basketball court.) But of course Barry never got around to the project; he obviously wasn’t serious about displacing D.C. rats once he got into office.
And so the civic-minded volunteers decided to do it themselves, staking a claim with their own money and tools and best intentions. First, they removed the rotting benches and moldy sofas used by the park’s ever-soused borrachos, who stumbled across the street to the steps of a church, where they watched the amusing spectacle of Goodniks at Work. In a Martha Stewart-style guerrilla landscaping operation, the goodniks destroyed the rat tunnels and planted flower beds that exude a rustic perfume of mulch and potpourri. As a crowning touch (though it’s arguable whetherMartha would have approved), they installed a carpet of green artificial turf on the concrete platform formerly used by street preachers.
A few days after the renovation, people in business suits snapped photos of each other shaking each other’s hands. Somebody gave a speech about Unity Park finally bringing people together. There was no place to sit but the forlorn platform, so everyone just stood there gripping andgrinning, their paisley ties flapping in the May breeze.
Now the park is mostly empty, except when ice-cream eaters in shorts and sandals gather to gorge on eco-licious desserts from the nearby Ben & Jerry’s. They lounge on the green carpet, taking comfort in its putt-putt golf familiarity. On a recent sunny day, some ice-cream eaters even flicked off their flipflops to boldly go barefoot in Rat Park; there have also been several sightings of ice-cream eaters playing hacky sack.
Across the street, the borrachos and other former Rat Park regulars now congregate on the church steps. From the shaded high perch, they watch their former hangout—now informally known as El Parque de las Flores (Flower Park)—as if it were a stage for their entertainment. Munching sardines from tin cans and slurping cheap pint booze, they laugh maniacally at the ice-cream eaters and heckle the passing crowd.
As for the rats, at the first whiff of impending beautification, they fled deeper into Northwest D.C. to the Uptown Theater, where the popcorn is buttered and the goodniks are in the dark.