Saturday, April 1, 2006

A park in Northeast will officially be named today for Marvin Gaye, a ceremony residents say is a tribute to a native son and the reclamation of the neighborhood park once overrun by drugs and crime.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to remind myself of what’s been accomplished here in the last five years, but this isn’t the end,” said Dennis Chestnut, 56, a neighborhood resident and president of the Watts Branch Community Alliance. “We want not just to restore the area but to enhance it … to be one of the places that, when people come to D.C., they make it a point to come and visit Marvin Gaye Park.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is scheduled to visit the renovated Watts Branch Park for the 3 p.m. rededication ceremony.

Yesterday, more than 200 residents and volunteers from Washington Parks & People, Casey Trees Endowment, D.C. Habitat for Humanity and the Watts Branch Community Alliance planted 40 trees in and around the park and nearby housing projects and cleaned the park in preparation for today, the anniversary of Mr. Gaye’s birthday.

The beautification project has been under way for five years, said Steve Coleman, the executive director of Washington Parks & People, the nonprofit group spearheading the renovation. He said members helped remove 78 abandoned vehicles, more than 8,000 syringes and 20,000 bags of garbage from the park.

“We want to use the park to reconnect people with the land and use the land to reconnect the people with each other,” he said.

Kristin Frontiera, 19, a freshman at George Washington University, was one of dozens of students who assisted yesterday.

“I like to plant trees, and it’s for a really good cause,” said Miss Frontiera, who volunteered after a professor offered extra credit to those who helped.

Though most volunteers were from area schools and universities, many were people who lived near the park and recall when it was a crime-infested area that residents feared. Carolyn Carpenter remembers the park as being “very dirty.”

“You never actually saw people walking in it,” she said, “but it’s come a long way. There’s a lot more work to do, but this is a great start.”

In the past five years, more than 25,000 volunteers have worked to restore the park, where a few residents remember Mr. Gaye playing and performing as a youth. Workers also renovated the Riverside Activity Center at Division Avenue and Foote Street, across the street from the park.

Washington Parks & People for the past two years has maintained the center, where Mr. Gaye was known to perform with various R&B and doo-wop groups when it was a nightclub. Mr. Chestnut recalled Mr. Gaye as one of many talented singers in a vibrant local music scene in the 1950s.

“I remember hearing about him,” he said. “They described him as this young guy with this smooth, satiny voice, and it was Marvin. This place was a fertile ground for a lot of talent. Unfortunately, there weren’t avenues available for people to take advantage of their talents.”

Mr. Gaye, shot by his father in a quarrel, died April 1, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday.

Mr. Coleman, who pushed for the name change for five years, said D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat, was integral to the renaming and revamping of the park and surrounding area.

Mr. Gray, whose ward includes the park, introduced the bill to rename it last year. The council unanimously approved the change in January.

“This has been a catalyst for change,” he said yesterday. “It’s [revitalized] a part of our city that has been long neglected. …It’s just a matter of time before the area is completely rejuvenated.”

Throughout the spring, the District plans to spend about $5 million to install a new trail, lighting, a plaza, outdoor performance spaces and better storm drainage for the park, which was once known as “needle park.”

Mr. Gray stressed the importance of involving the residents in cleanup efforts.

“The more we get shovels in the hands of the people who live in this community, the more they’ll take ownership of the park,” he said. “They won’t tolerate trash, McDonald’s bags and beer bottles being thrown on the ground.”

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