For this week’s cover story, I stepped a bit outside the bounds of housing and development. But not that far out. The article’s about a tiny triangular park in Columbia Heights: Some people love it—other people see it as a drug dealer hangout that produces more crime, anxiety and heartache than good. Live in many D.C. neighborhoods, and these are the little conflicts that shape whether you enjoy your home, and whether you feel that you belong. A house, after all, is more than what’s inside the front door. Here’s the story:
For roughly a year, artist Sarah Tooley had observed people coming and going from the green benches at the tiny triangular park at 14th and Ogden Streets in Columbia Heights. Through her back bedroom window, she watched the rhythms of the neighborhood take form.
The park had no name and no perks: No fountain. No statues. No flowers. Not even any grass, just a brick surface with some weeds poking through. And some drug-dealing Tooley says she was too naive to recognize at first. But at least there was the seating—until one day, even that disappeared.
Tooley took note of how people adjusted to life without the benches, hunching over by the curb while waiting for the bus or dragging over milk crates to sit on. Some leaned against cars, occasionally setting off their alarms.
“And you’d see people sitting under the tree, and then wiping dirt off their butts when they got up,” she says. “That’s when I was like, ugh, this is such an indignity. It just seemed ridiculous that some people in the city get seating, and some don’t.”
So began her mission to fill what she felt was a void in the tiny little park. Tooley decided she was going to bring the benches back. And, as an artist who had worked before creating murals with D.C. school children around the city, she would construct them herself: seven colored benches inscribed with people’s thoughts about the park.
Tooley saw the promise of a few new benches—a place for little old ladies to rest on their way home from the grocery, a spot for a quick lunch out of a Styrofoam container, a site to stop and watch the rest of the city speed by. She thought they would be welcome.