- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

D.C. officials hope to unveil portions of the newly renovated Meridian Hill Park for July Fourth celebrations.

Meridian Hill was once among the most violent of national parks. It has undergone extensive reconstruction both physically and culturally to make it a haven for lounging and performances.

The $6.2 million project has been ongoing since 2003, and officials are looking forward to the tentative opening.

“It’s a great relief to have these playing fields back,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. “We’ve all missed the park, and I think now we can breathe a sigh of relief.”

Mr. Graham noted the multiple renovations to the park including rejuvenating the waterfalls and creating a police outpost.

The 12-acre park, set in the densest part of the city, opened to the public in 1936 and was originally intended to be a park for the performing arts. Inspired by Italian and French architecture, the park’s layered waterfalls lead to a grassy mall where people can relax and take in the culture.

D.C. resident Bob Jacobs said he enjoys the history and community partnership that the park stands for.

“There’s so much heritage here, it’s nice to see it the way that it was originally intended to be.”

Once home to the largest open-air drug-dealing market in the city, Meridian is now a gathering place for children, artists, concert performances, neighborhood celebrations and even tours.

Much of the change was driven by Friends of Meridian Hill. Resident Steve Coleman founded the citizens crime-patrol group in 1990 — shortly after a 5-year-old boy was fatally shot in the neighborhood.

Mr. Coleman set out to change the neighborhood and the way the park operated, and 18 years later his group is still going full steam.

“We started to bring life back to the community that seemed to have lost hope,” he said. “It’s a process that hasn’t always been easy, but we believe in the park, and we believe in the community.”

When Mr. Coleman and his group started, their goal was to create a friendly atmosphere throughout the park. Now, crime in the park has plunged 99 percent from the bad old days.

“At one point it was illegal for children to play ball in the park,” Mr. Coleman said. “When we tell our kids they can’t play ball, we’re telling them to stop doing something positive and to go do something negative.”

Now that ball playing is both legal and encouraged, children of the area will be able to take full advantage of the park’s grassy mall when it reopens.

David Lozano, 7, is one of the handful of children who frequent the park with a soccer ball in search of a place to play.

“I come here all the time with my dad,” said David. “We re-enact soccer games and hang out by the fountains.”

Thomus Tafari has watched the movement of generations through the park. From gang violence, crime and drugs, to families lounging in the grass and enjoying the architecture, Mr. Tafari sees the park as one of the District’s greatest achievements.

Mr. Tafari, an artist who occasionally teaches at a Rastafarian charter school, has been coming to the park with his art for six years, giving him an opportunity to watch it come back to life.

“I saw this park back when it was really bad, before it went through its metamorphosis,” Mr. Tafari said. “About 20 years ago it started to go downhill and get really dangerous, too much crime chased the kids out.”

Now Mr. Tafari sees families and community members back in the park, enjoying it in the way he thinks it should be used.

Despite the renovations and community improvements, Mr. Coleman thinks that the city hasn’t done all that it could for the park.

“I’d really like to see a stronger partnership between the federal, city and community branches,” Mr. Coleman said. “There is so much more that could be done. It’s ludicrous that it’s taken so long to renovate. Some of the biggest parks in the world don’t require this much time.”

“This is a community-based partnership that gives a direct, positive impact on the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s the definition of democracy in action.”

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