- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

City plans to revamp

1.6-mile-long area

The D.C. apartment complex where singer Marvin Gaye lived as a teenager is gone. The site is now a patch of brown dirt behind a chain-link fence.

Steve Coleman tried to save the two-story building and honor Mr. Gaye by turning it into a recording studio for children.

“There were people who were embarrassed by the fact that this was public housing,” said Mr. Coleman, 45. “They said that Marvin Gaye was a disgrace to the community, he was killed by his father — people came up with all kinds of reasons.”

Now Mr. Gaye, one of Motown Records’ best-selling artists, is getting his due.

After a five-year push by volunteers like Mr. Coleman, Mr. Gaye’s hometown plans to name a large but neglected park — part of which was known as “needle park” — after him and help revive one of the city’s most blighted areas.

More than a tribute to a local person who did well, the effort is a story of how residents can take matters into their own hands, said D.C. Council member Vincent Gray, whose ward includes the park.

“It’s really shaping up,” said Mr. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat. “We should have done this long ago.”

Marvin Gaye Park, which Mr. Gray said the City Council probably will approve in a series of votes starting as early as this month, would join Washington tributes to two other hometown musicians — jazz legend Duke Ellington and conductor John Philip Sousa, both of whom have a school and bridge named after them.

Mr. Gaye, born in 1939, lived in Washington until he joined the doo-wop group the Moonglows in the late 1950s. His career then took him to Detroit’s Motown Records, where he began a run of 41 top-40 hits.

Mr. Gaye, who battled a cocaine addiction, died in Los Angeles in 1984, when his father shot him after an argument.

The 1.6-mile-long park, now called Watts Branch, meanders along a stream and comes within a few hundred feet of Mr. Gaye’s former home in Northeast. The park already has a mosaic depicting Mr. Gaye playing piano outdoors next to the stream.

“Marvin would definitely be honored,” said Gaye biographer David Ritz. “He loved Washington and hungered for the kind of respect the District paid to its other native sons, like Ellington.”

The park is near two public-housing projects. A quarter of residents in the surrounding ward live below the poverty level, twice the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The ward is 97 percent black.

Not long ago, the park seemed unsuitable as a memorial to anyone.

People dumped refuse there for years when a nearby dump was closed, said Michael Lucy, a city parks administrator. Many middle- and high-income blacks moved to the suburbs, and crime became a problem.

“Folks in the neighborhood started calling it ‘needle park’ because there was such entrenched heroin use and trade,” Mr. Lucy said.

Mr. Coleman and the nonprofit group he heads, Washington Parks & People, helped remove 78 abandoned cars, 7,500 needles and 10,000 bags of garbage from the park, he said. Volunteers planted almost 1,000 trees and more than 2,000 flowers and cleaned out the streambed.

So far $5 million — three-quarters from private sources — has been spent on park capital projects, Mr. Coleman said.

Next spring, the city plans to spend about $5 million to install a new trail, lighting, a plaza, outdoor performance spaces and better storm drainage.

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