From Cable Yard to Kid’s Center

From 1910 to the 1976, the site on which Crispus Attucks Park sits today belonged to the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, which operated a telephone switching station and cable yard there. C&P closed down operations on the property in the late 1960s, leaving behind an abandoned 8,275 square foot building and a 1.06 acre cement and asphalt pad strewn with industrial cables and spindles. The site sat neglected for nearly a decade, until neighbors began a campaign to convince C&P to convey the building and land to the neighborhood so it could be used as a community center and training facility for neighborhood youth. The campaign succeeded, and in 1977 the community group incorporated as “NUV-1,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit named after the four streets that border the property: North Capitol Street NW, U Street NW, V Street NW, and 1st Street NW. Inspired by this story of collective community action and vision, the George Hyman Construction Company renovated the building at no charge, using scores of volunteers from the community for much of the work.

In 1978, the community center began operation as Crispus Attucks Park of the Arts, and NUV-1 saw its name change, to the Crispus Attucks Development Corporation (CADC). Activities were initially funded by renting out the building for weekend social events, but soon the center began receiving annual funding from the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. The center’s programs were targeted largely to youth, and included classes in visual arts, photography, bicycle repair, music, dramatic arts, auto and home repairs, and crime prevention. The center also administered a summer construction and neighborhood revitalization program. Eventually, historical and fine art objects were put on display inside the building, and the center became CAMPA–the Crispus Attucks Museum and Park of the Arts.

Budget Cuts, Hard Times, and a Turning Point

Unfortunately, CADC lost its funding from Park and Recreation in 1987 when the financially strapped DC Government made severe, across-the-board budget cuts. The site sat neglected and the building vacant until the structure was gutted by fire on July 3, 1990. The years that followed were difficult ones as the situation grew progressively worse. Homeless people began living in abandoned vehicles parked on the property, and neighbors complained of drug dealing, prostitution, illegal dumping of construction debris, and other illicit activities in the park.

Finally, in response to mounting pressure from a frustrated community, DC police raided the homeless encampment in July of 1995, arresting the trespassers and towing the illegally parked vehicles. The action not only inspired the local residents, but also caught the eye of the Embassy of Australia, which selected CAMPA for its annual “Clean Up the World” project. In September of 1995, fifty embassy employees worked with the neighbors to clean up the park, seal up the abandoned building, and plant trees.

Neighbors recall the police action and clean up as a turning point. Gates to the site were padlocked in an effort to prevent the situation from reoccurring. A few residents began to reclaim sections of the property–still not yet a park–near their homes, planting and tending to them the way many homeowners care for their own gardens. Working together, they also removed large sections of asphalt with pick-axes. These hardworking neighbors became the new leadership of CADC, reconstituting the non-profit organization responsible for oversight of the park. The community’s new vision for the park: a “community oasis,” a spot of green in a relatively densely populated urban environment.

Regaining Legal Control of the Property

However, the new governing board quickly learned some unfortunate news: the DC Government had foreclosed on the property in November of 1998 for back taxes, liens, and unpaid utility bills totaling more than $270,000. The news galvanized the community, and the board began a campaign to aggressively pursue the return of site control. In April 2002, with assistance from The American University Law Clinic, CADC succeeded in getting the foreclosure dismissed. Capitalizing on the momentum of these successes, CADC enlisted the help of local officials to re-establish site control for CADC. Soon, champions on the DC Council introduced legislation to do just that.

The legal and financial troubles did not stop the board from making progress on its goal of beautifying the site. The CAMPA building — which had been damaged by fire a second time in July of 2000, this time beyond repair — needed to be demolished. In February of 2001, CADC’s advocates on the DC Council succeeded in having the burned out structure razed. Shortly thereafter, in August 2002, CADC received a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to landscape the site into a park, enabling them to fill in the hole left by the removal of the building and dramatically increase the amount of green space on the property.

In February 2004, the DC City Council passed Bill 15-0068, the “Crispus Attucks Development Corporation Real Property Tax Exemption and Equitable Real Property Tax Relief Act of 2004”; The legislation returned full site control of the park to CADC, forgave all past unpaid property taxes and liens, and re-established the tax exempt status of the Crispus Attucks Park land.

An Era of Rapid Improvements

Re-establishment of site control ushered in a period of sustained physical improvements to the park, and further productive activities from CADC’s governing Board. In the spring of 2004, CADC organized “Bloomingdale’s Biggest Yard Sale” now an annual event and the park’s biggest fundraising event of the year. That first official event allowed CADC to have ten new trees planted in the relatively bare west end of the park, and add terracing to reduce erosion. Neighbors came together to remove the six foot tall chain link fence that surrounded the park site, and, later, took on the back-breaking project of removing the old industrial-grade fence posts and installing a wooden retaining border around much of the park. Neighbors planted new beds in several places around the perimeter of the park. The last remnants of asphalt were hacked out and replaced by lawn. Concurrently, the park Board of Directors solicited input from neighbors and developed a set of guidelines for the physical development of the park to ensure that the park’s design remained open and welcoming to its varied stakeholders. These guidelines continue to guide CADC as it undertakes park improvement projects, and help neighbors as they take the initiative to make individual improvements to the park.

Site control also allowed CADC to step up its efforts to obtain grant funding, and soon CADC won a number of large grants to make important physical improvements and enhancements to the park:

The Memory Garden – In 2004, CADC obtained more than $50,000 in grants from the TKF Foundation, and additional funds from ANC 5C, to design and install a “sacred space” in the park, a quiet place where neighbors could come to connect with nature and reflect. TKF also supported professional design assistance from SITE Landscaping, which worked with the community to design the garden, which ultimately was named the “Memory Garden.” TKF has since provided additional enhancement grants allowing CADC to continually improve the space and deepen the community’s involvement with the space, including a youth work program that provided stipends to neighborhood kids to help maintain and improve the garden and surrounding areas of the park.

Massive Tree Planting – In June 2006, CADC obtained a grant from Casey Trees to plant more than 50 trees and shrubs throughout the park. Working with the community and local volunteer organizations, Casey Trees and CADC organized more than 200 volunteers to plant all these new trees and shrubs in a single day in November 2006.

Water, Irrigation, Grading – In January 2007, CADC obtained a $75,000 grant from the Neighborhood Investment Fund that allowed CADC to reestablish water service to the park, install an automatic irrigation system throughout the entire site, and to grade and seed the “great lawn” in the center of the park.
Incremental improvements continued. In spring 2011, CADC received a final “enrichment grant” to expand the principles of the Memory Garden to the rest of the park. This includes cedar arbors marking park entrances at east and west, and new walkways that merge with existing paths to connect these arbors to each other.

An Ongoing Balancing Act

As the physical appearance of the park has improved, one of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that the park space remains a welcoming space for a wide cross-section of the community. That goal brings its share of challenges. One of the thorniest is the issue of liability, due to the park’s unique status as both a privately owned property and one that is open to the local community. The issue has limited the kinds of amenities CADC may put in the park. The issue crystallized in 2004 when CADC was forced to forfeit grant monies to install a small playground set in the park because it could not secure liability insurance coverage. In response to calls from CADC and the Bloomingdale community for the DC Council to address the “Catch-22” its own legislation had created, the DC Council eventually passed indemnification legislation that would, subject to appropriation, reimburse CADC for liability claims against the park. The CADC board sees indemnification as sufficient for a simple green space, but does not consider it sufficient for a space that includes children’s playground equipment. Fortunately, in the last several years, the DC Government has erected three children’s playgrounds within short walking distance of Crispus Attucks Park.

CADC remains committed to ensuring that the park remains a resource for the youth and adults of the community. The “Great Lawn” was envisioned as a space where people could play touch football, soccer, catch, and run around. But making sure this remains possible is a challenge. Unlike fields in many public parks, the lawns in Crispus Attucks Park were not designed as play fields and will die if overused–and the competing demands for the space make it very easy to overuse them. In addition the many other legitimate activities we see on the Great Lawn (e.g., Frisbee, badminton, volleyball), For example, some neighbors break the clearly posted rules and let their dogs run off-leash. Off-leash dog traffic quickly turns the lawn muddy and unusable, and also discourages some children and other neighbors who are afraid of dogs from even using the park. It is also illegal, breaking DC’s leash law. Dogs are welcome in designated areas, so long as owners keep them on leash and pick up their waste.

For Crispus Attucks Park to remain a success, a compact between the community and the park is needed. If all who value and use Crispus Attucks Park contribute to it in some way, the park will remain the “Community Oasis” we treasure. CADC welcomes your ideas, your interest, and your energy in support of this vision.