Tammy Smallwood, a resident of Mount Pleasant for 32 years, chats in Amigos Park with longtime resident José Cruz. Credit: Ambar Castillo

José Cruz, clad in a camouflage T-shirt, khaki pants, and a mask he often pulls down to reveal a disarming smile, is prepared for battle. He and his friends—several of whom stop by within a half hour of Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s visit on Monday afternoon—have waged a longtime, low-key campaign to make this corner of Mount Pleasant and Kenyon streets NW (so well known it is called “la esquina,” or “the corner”) an officially recognized park. Their tactics, like other native residents’ resistance to gentrification, including go-go music, have been mostly cultural: shooting the breeze while leaning against a fence blocking off the inaccessible land behind them; playing checkers, cards, and dominoes with bottle caps while sitting on milk cartons they’ve squirreled away after the adjacent 7-Eleven store chucked them; and in pre-COVID times, passing around pupusas from the nearby restaurants. 

Nadeau showed up to announce the legislation she would be introducing the following day at a D.C. Council meeting. It’s a proposal to finally designate Amigos Park as a park and thus create a path for it to receive city funds and support for renovation. The Council unanimously approved the initiative yesterday (along with high-profile legislation like expanding virtual learning in D.C. public schools). While councilmembers’ consensus may give the impression that the park is uncontroversial, recent history says otherwise.

“This is an issue of urban development,” Celestino Barrera, a community organizer who works with Trabajadores Unidos in D.C., tells City Paper. “It’s about the presence of Latinx immigrants … and how gentrification has displaced people from their barrio, like it’s done with Black residents.” 

A name, he says, gives a community space legitimacy and functions as a barrier not only from expelling residents from their space but also from cultural displacement. 

“The act of naming a place in your own language—Amigos Park, in their Spanish tongue—is a way to continue to exist and conserve your culture, your space, and combat gentrification,” he says.

Throughout years of community advocacy for the park’s official recognition, Nadeau said at the legislative meeting, advocates have encountered resistance from District agencies and “it appears that Amigos Park is seen as too small to be a meaningful contribution to the District’s inventory of public spaces.” This rationale, she explained, “does a disservice to those who prove the spaces’ meaning every day, and also ignores the fact that Amigos Park is nestled into the densest part of the District where public space is at a premium and opportunities to create more space are scarce.” 

The approved proposal highlights the significance of the park as a central gathering space for many Latinx residents and for community organizing, performances, community healthcare clinics, local restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops. The resolution also summoned statements of support from organizations serving Mount Pleasant such as District Bridges and Green Spaces for DC. Due to a lack of maintenance, Amigos Park has faced chronic rodent and trash problems. The Council’s vote could make long-awaited park improvements a possibility after the Department of General Services and Department of Parks and Recreation have declined to work on the space. 

Nadeau, who is running for reelection in the Democratic primary this June, has been working on this issue with Arturo Griffiths, executive director of Trabajadores Unidos in D.C., since before the pandemic, Griffiths says. 

The demographic of folks who frequent the spot are overwhelmingly immigrant men from Central America who are either retired or come to relax after working long shifts as day laborers. It is a microcosm of a large Salvadoran population that, starting in the late 1970s and 1980s, made their home in Mount Pleasant as refugees from a civil war. 

The makeshift park, in large part, reflects a Latin American cultural tradition of going to the plaza, particularly after work, 40-year Mount Pleasant resident and poet Quique Avilés has explained. For years, some newer residents have advocated for Amigos Park to become a dog park, or to split the 1700 square feet between dogs and workers. Others, particularly longtime residents and workers’ rights activists, point to the dog park proposal as another attempt to further gentrify the neighborhood in a list of perceived threats that has included Subway and CVS

“Mount Pleasant is perhaps the only place that is left in the city that still has that kind of barrio feeling, because everything else has kind of been decimated by buildings and newcomers,” Avilés told WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi in a 2018 interview where he discussed his documentary project about Amigos Park, La Esquina.  

The city has the money to renovate Amigos Park, like they’ve done with dog parks in neighborhoods with a demographic that is more White, Griffiths maintains. 

Griffiths and Barrera say they’ve long suspected that White residents have called the police with noise complaints and their unease over homelessness and intoxication at Amigos Park for the past several years. The two suggest residents try getting to know the regulars who hang out there.

“Racism is at the root of this matter, as we have seen with the Mount Pleasant uprisings … and the murder of George Floyd,” Griffiths says. “Our hope is that this space maintains its multilingualism and multiculturalism.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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