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When the Godfather of Go-Go died in a Baltimore hospital in May 2012, just a few months shy of his 76th birthday, fans from around the world vividly chronicled their memories on social media platforms. If there had been a question in recent years about Chuck Brown’s relevance to the popular masses outside of D.C., those doubts were put to rest by the size and power of the international response to his death.
So it was with much public good will that, just a few months later, then-Mayor Vince Gray announced the establishment of Chuck Brown Day, a special designation that would occur annually on Aug. 22, Brown’s birthday. Perhaps even more excitedly, the mayor announced new plans for the construction of Chuck Brown Memorial Park, proposed as a portion of Langdon Park in Northeast D.C.
Two years later, on what would have been Brown’s 78th birthday, the 42,000 square-foot memorial opened to much fanfare without the amphitheater that was initially promised. Though there were some grumblings from attendees that architect Michael Marshall’s design didn’t live up to high expectations, the park, which uses large surrounding photos of Brown for a memorial wall, is a major improvement on the little-used pavilion that was there before.
The neighborhood’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Nolan Treadway, says the previous amphitheater space was in poor structural shape. “Nobody used it for an amphitheater from what I’d seen in the five years I lived in the neighborhood,” he says. “Frankly, almost all the use that I saw it getting―there’s an outlet on the stage thing, so people would come by to charge their phones…The whole space is much nicer and engaging than it was before.”
This Saturday marks the first anniversary of the Chuck Brown Memorial Park, and the occasion is being fêted by a free concert in the park, headlined by the Chuck Brown Band. When neighbors of the park noticed that the event’s Facebook invite had garnered thousands of positive responses, some doubted that the park could accommodate a crowd of that size. (The guest list has since been hidden.) One complained of the “trash, and possible violence when large groups of go-go concert goers get together.” The late-onset outrage surprised Treadway, who’d witnessed enthusiastic support for the event at a community meeting held at the Langdon Park Recreation Center some months prior.
Treadway has been in contact with the city and organizing officials since last week, and has determined that parking and crowd control issues are being adequately handled. However, due to concerns raised by neighbors, Saturday’s show is now scheduled to run two hours instead of four, and it will only feature the Chuck Brown Band.
The Chuck Brown Band, now led by singer Frank Sirius, is largely a legacy band, intent on keeping Brown’s iconic catalogue alive and relevant to go-go’s still-passionate, though perhaps smaller, fanbase. “We consider it an honor to keep his music alive and continue to spread it to the masses,” Sirius writes in an email. “I personally look at it like a responsibility—to pick up the torch, to not only let people hear the music, but also know and understand the history. The roots are so deeply entrenched here in D.C. that the music will never die as long as we don’t let the people forget.”
As for the memorial park? “I think it’s awesome, but I did feel like the city owed Chuck so much more for his lifelong contributions to the culture and arts in D.C.”
Treadway agrees, but believes the Chuck Brown Memorial Park has been good for the neighborhood. “I come to the park several times a week, and it’s not uncommon to see people there—generations of people, kids and parents, at the memorial looking at stuff,” he says. “Certainly, over the last year, I’ve seen folks seemingly coming to the neighborhood to check it out.”
He also thinks that, in lieu of the promised amphitheater, there should be an actual performance venue named after the music legend.“I think it’s appropriate to have more than one thing, for a guy like that, who had so much influence here in D.C.”
The First Annual Chuck Brown Day celebration takes place Saturday Aug. 22 at 4 p.m. Free. Chuck Brown Memorial Park, 2901 20th St. NE.