COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Organizing and Programming Across Cultural Boundaries

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

20 Strategies used by Friends Of Meridian Hill

by Steve Coleman

1. Took time to get to know and learn from the long-time users of the Park, and selected diverse leaders among them to guide the Friends and ensure that our diversity is institutional as well as programmatic (this is not easy; the most dedicated "Park people" often have little interest in management, meetings, memos, or money but understand the meaning of the Park better than anyone).

2. Adapted traditional Native American, African American, Latin American, and pagan European rituals into seasonal celebrations that honor many different cultures, different heritages, and our common bonds in the Earth.

3. Helped build regular diverse uses of the Park that link the landscape into people's daily lives and different traditions: Latino and Caribbean soccer games (ball-playing had been illegal), African American drumming circle, Mexican and Indochinese dance practice, morning Tai Chi sessions, arts programs, daycare and other children's play programs, and multicultural senior outings.

4. Nurtured broad religious support and involvement to inspire people to help the Park, including Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Eritrean, Evangelical, Jewish, Lutheran, Quaker, and Unitarian spiritual ceremonies and service programs.

5. Produced free "pageantry" to make the Park come alive as Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (who designed our Concert Grove) intended, including over 100 concerts honoring young people and "Worlds Coming Together at the Park"; cross-cultural theater (inspired by the Living Stage and Cornerstone Theater Companies); dance performances led by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in which the audience became the performers and the entire park became the stage; ceremonies honoring multicultural heroes in the neighborhood; poetry from many cultures; African American Civil War reenactments; Native American sunrise services; Lights of Hope fountain lighting; school graduations; weddings and memorial services; model boat regattas; life-size chess tournaments; and Joan of Arc's 580th birthday, with the ghost of the Saint arriving in armor on horseback, together with a young girl portraying a modern-day Joan of Arc -- Linda Brown, the seven-year-old whose courage led to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision.

6. Drew a simple map of Park user groups and resources, and surrounding community assets that could contribute to park revitalization (having started by thinking we had very little to work with, we have been continually amazed at how much our communities have to offer).

7. Partnered with hundreds of arts, culture, youth, social service, and community institutions, to help them use the Park as an extension of their facilities, to restore six smaller nearby neighborhood parks and connecting streetscapes, and to help restore and reunite the neighborhoods around the park.

8. Encouraged local community development corporations, property owners, and businesses to use the park as a symbol of economic and residential revitalization of the entire area, as a spark for new investment, and as a focal point for job training and creation.

9. Led regional and national group site visits of the Park to press funders for new grantmaking to integrate park revitalization and programming into nearly every area of urban philanthropic concern.

10. Advanced a national model of community policing in the park, transforming a long-standing police-community rift into a prevention-oriented partnership with the U.S. Park Police.

11. Transformed a once-violent place into what Ghandi might have called "a zone of peace," celebrating life in the Park by planting 130 trees in memory of people in the Park and community and by honoring the Parks mascot and symbol of respect for all life -- the earthworm.

12. Created our motto (with the poet's permission) from Maya Angelou's poem: "A Rock, A River, A Tree, A Park for All People." When our late Co-Chair Josephine Butler heard the Inaugural Poem about the many peoples of America, the image she kept thinking about was the Park set in the most diverse part of the Capital: the Rock, the 500 million-year-old cliff at the center of the Park; the River, both the artificial Cascade of Fountains and the long-buried Slash's Run Creek under the hilltop; and the Tree, all those memorial trees planted as symbols of life throughout the Park.

13. Led tours, story-telling, and other interpretive programs emphasizing the interwoven Native American, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Asian, as well as European and U.S., roots of the historic landscape, as well as the direct contributions by African American and immigrant workers to the construction and craftsmanship of the Park.

14. Developed pilot school programs integrating the park into many parts of the curricula for pre-K through college, from Environmental Studies to Neighborhood History, from Literature to Government Studies, from Filmmaking to Architecture, from Dance to Preservation Technology.

15. Brought new users -- many initially quite nervous -- into the Park for volunteer gardening and service programs, jogging, picnics, singles events, and dog walking groups (which became "Dogs in the Hood" for our parade to the Capitol on the 25th Anniversary of Earth Day).

16. Physically reconnected the Park to wider concentric circles of community, including downtown and the broader region, with 10K runs, new tour bus routes, marches, links to museum tours, programmatic partnerships with other parks, innercity youth park tours, and promotion of non-automotive greenway and transit connections across the regional park system.

17. Conducted heritage tours, oral history programs, senior center presentations, and other outreach to reconnect the park's "alumni" (former users) and its pastwith its present life.

18. Made regular use of free media coverage to counteract decades of bad news with each new positive development.

19. Campaigned to restore the park in maps and guidebooks that had either ignored or denigrated it for decades, marketing the Park as a unique cultural as well as natural landscape, and as America's first national park for the performing arts.

20. Advertised the Park's renaissance as "Washington's most international park" with large color pictures in magazine articles, newspaper pullout sections, the subway system (coming soon), and on the cover of the phone book; electronic footage in television and radio documentaries, music videos, and two feature films; and outreach to embassies, international tourists, and community leaders from other cultures seeking to learn from the Meridian Hill revitalization model.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space