Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, is located on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. For a time, it had the dubious distinction of being known as the “most violent national park in the region.” However, after a neighborhood friends group adopted the park, its use by local residents grew exponentially, and crime has been reduced over 95%. Meridian Hill Park is now one of the great models of park stewardship in the country and has served as an example for many other parks partnerships.
Meridian Hill Park is a 12-acre national park, in one of Washington’s most densely-populated and diverse neighborhoods. Located 7,000 feet from the White House, the park was built between 1912-1939, with an unusual two-tiered design. The upper level is mostly grass, while the lower tier is aggregate concrete, designed as a formal garden with pools and statues. A 300-foot, 13 level cascading staircase fountain, the longest of its kind, separates the two levels. The park’s Concert Grove, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was the sight of many performances up until the early 1970′s, when it began to fall into misuse.
By the early 1980′s, Meridian Hill Park was a virtual den of thieves. One newspaper article quoted a police officer who called it “a supermarket of drug dealing.” Although residents disputed it, a 1989 study called the park the “Most Murderous” in that section of the city. The members of a local neighborhood association decided to fight back. They organized a park patrol, which wore orange hats and carried no weapons but said “hello” to everyone they met in the park. “It’s a simple thing, and it sounds corny but it really works,” said Steve Coleman, a resident who helped organize the patrols.
Although they were, at times, taking their lives into their own hands, nine of the original volunteers decided to venture into the park at night, to see what was really happening, and meet the park’s denizens. Coming face to face with the park’s murderous reputation, they were surprised to discover a core group of people who really cared about the park and were actually keeping an eye on things. Some of the people encountered on that first night have since become key contributors to the effort. One, a former drug-dealer, became an informant in a trial about a murder in the park, resulting in the imprisonment of the slayer. Another became the chair of the Friends of Meridian Hill, the organization that grew out of the outreach effort. “You can’t deny who is already there,” said Coleman. “We found that these people, although they seem intimidating to approach, were phenomenal assets. They became our eyes and ears for truly bad behavior.”
Shortly after the volunteers began patrolling, an article appeared in The Washington Post chronicling the park’s decline into vandalism and drug-dealing. The article, “Washington’s Jewel of a Park Losing Its Luster to Vandalism,” quoted the National Park Service supervisor in charge of Meridian Hill Park, who said that the primary reason the park was allowed to decline was the fact that no one cared about it. “Nobody calls, never any complaints. Nobody cares about that park,” he was quoted as saying. In the eyes of the volunteers, the perception of the park had become the reality. That needed to be reversed.
The park supervisor received a flurry of calls in response to the article. These callers became a focus for Coleman and his partners, who invited the callers to a meeting on the park. A cleanup was scheduled for late April, and as Coleman fondly recalls, over 100 people came out in the rain and filled nearly 400 garbage bags with trash. Highlights of the cleanup included a local band, and a visit by the Secretary of the Interior, who donated an office to the project. Friends of Meridian Hill (FOMH) was born. Linda Wheeler, the Washington Post reporter who had authored the article, was surprised. She had had no expectations that anything would happen as a result of the piece, and noted that “usually, these stories just involve a documentation of deterioration over time.”
Relentless promotion of the park in every conceivable format, grassroots fundraising, and unflagging effort are the hallmarks of the FOMH. After their initial success with the cleanup, event after event followed, linking the park and the neighborhood together. FOMH researched the history of the park, and talked to longtime residents. For example, the park was the site of a Native American spiritual ground and Thomas Jefferson championed the spot for the prime meridian – the source of the park’s name. Through these and other links, FOMH built a sculpture preservation program, held arts events, celebrated the solstices, and, incredibly, held twilight concerts in Meridian Hill Park. Many of these events were based on memories of things that used to happen there, as well as the imaginations of residents. “Past, present and future must be present in the theme of every event,” said Coleman.
The park acquired a reputation for returning from the brink. On Earth Day, 1994, the ultimate validation came from President Clinton, who delivered an environmental address in the park, and later, in a White House ceremony, awarded FOMH the National Park Service’s highest organizational honor, the Top Community Partnership Award.
Since the Friends began in 1990, park attendance has tripled and crime in the park has dropped 95%. Due to massive community involvement, and a new police lieutenant who believed strongly in treating the problems of the neighborhood holistically, reports of robberies dropped from 34 to three from 1990 – 1993.
FOMH now has approximately 1,500 members, and untold additional volunteers. The majestic fountains have been turned on, and the park has become a true center of community activity, providing a meeting place for its residents. FOMH has worked with the Park Service to retrain mid-career staff in how to build partnerships, and have helped to start over 30 friends groups throughout the region, and began a region-wide park network, known as Washington Parks and People.
Coleman always holds meetings in the park. He believes that it helps people brainstorm, and keeps them focused. “At first, meeting in the park frightened people,” he said, “but you find that this is because many folks have not been in the park for a long, long time, if ever.” FOMH also makes an attempt to reach what Coleman calls the “lost city” — people who were raised and/or got married near the park but have long since moved away. One strategy to reach them is to give lots of tours, “I learn more from the people on the tours than they learn from me,” he says.
Coleman’s language is also peppered with statistics. “Numbers always help, particularly in the beginning,” he says. Linda Wheeler agrees; “This kind of language has a real impact,” she said. “It gives a real sense of movement. Steve has a knack for it, so if he doesn’t know how many tons of garbage were removed he uses a different marker, like how many bags of garbage were taken out of the park.”
Wheeler additionally points out that Meridian Hill’s events are not just for the media, they are full-scale neighborhood events. If the friends are planning an event, Coleman will keep the media informed, but he never insists they attend. But there is an incentive: “Washington has so many negative stories,” she said, “This is something that is succeeding, not failing.” That alone makes it a story worth revisiting for her.
Friends of Meridian Hill, 202-387-9128