By LeMara Perry and K. Levek
There is a national capital park in Southeast Washington. While it could be viewed as a treasure, its view if far from it. Shepherd Parkway is part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. It includes two civil war sites: Fort Greble and Fort Carroll. On April 11, 1927 the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission acquired what is today Shepherd Parkway to connect the rest of the civil war forts in the Nation’s capital for purposes of a parkway called “Fort Drive”. While that idea was never realized the park became part of the National Park Service in 1933 and is today a mature wooded forest with a rolling terrace gravel terrain that offers a home to a variety of wildlife.
For years the park has gone neglected and if you were to go inside or along its route one might have been shocked to find many non-park items there. Refrigerators, used tires, car parts and an array of trash have been disposed at the park among other unmentionables. However, a group that is dedicated on saving the park, Restore Shepherd Parkway, has emerged in recent years under the leadership of Nathan Harrington.
Harrington is a Ward 8 resident and lives in Congress Heights, where the park is located. He says that he began working with the park cleanup after attending the Congress Heights Civic Association meeting, where then president Phillip Pannell encouraged him to get involved in the Shepherd Parkway committee. He said, “I’m an outdoor person and I was initially amazed by the green space east of the river and all the beautiful trees.”
Harrington’s role has been dedicated to bringing awareness about the park cleanup and help recruit volunteers for the monthly cleanup events. The cleanup for June had over 10 groups who were spread across twelve park sites to conduct the cleanup. One of the groups was the Minority Educational Institution Student Partnership Program (MEISPP) with the U.S. Department of Energy. Annie Whatley is the Deputy Director for the Office of Minority Education and Community Development. She said she thought it was important for students in this program to be involved in the park’s cleanup because “it gives them the opportunity to experience service outside of their normal communities.” She said it also gets them out of the office and they get to see different parts of the District.
The MEISPP program serves high school and college students from all over the country and brings them to the District to participate in activities and programs geared towards enhancing their technical experience, interpersonal and leadership skills. Marvin Suarez is a college student from Puerto Rico, who was out participating in the cleanup. He said, “This is a great community service activity and I think it’s important to give back to the environment.”
Harrington said MEISPP is just one of many organizations that he reaches out to monthly to come out and help with the park’s cleanup. Noticeably absent was the National Park Police. Since the restoration progress began there has been no increase in park police presence. The park is often seen as a negative highlight on the community. At the intersection of MLK and Malcolm X, one could see various activities taking place. At the park tables some residents sit and play cards, but others can be seen drinking and there is even the suspect of illegal drug activity taking place there.
At the June Congress Heights Civic Association meeting, residents and community members in attendance voiced great concern about the safety of the park. A National Park Police representative, Julie Kutruff, Site Manager, attended the meeting, but didn’t have a solid answer about the lack of attention the force has provided for the park. She said that resources are being allocated, but as the only areas manager of the parks in Wards 7 and 8 she is stretched thin.
However, there was praise for the hard work Harrington is doing to restore it. He has said he hopes the park can become a trash-free area where all residents can utilize the natural resources. Long term goals include creating a system for walking and hiking trails, maintaining a healthy native forest, showing more signage throughout the park, creating more educational and recreational programming, connecting the park more with the surrounding community and eventually creating a community garden.
Harrington has said over the past four years there have been about 500 volunteers and 10 fully dedicated individuals. The work and progress is slowly gaining momentum, from both inside and outside of Ward 8, with the help of Washington Parks and people from across the city.
So far, all the restoration that has been done has been by Harrington and volunteers. There has not been any institutional help. While the District’s Metropolitan Police have concurrent jurisdiction over the park, they do not patrol it. Park police are not out to patrol or restore it. The work is being left in the community’s hands, but with no governmental or national support how long will this be sustainable.
The amount of time it takes to reestablish the park depends on how many volunteers can be mobilized and how many resources and cooperation can be given by park service and the community. A blog, www.shepherdparkway.blogspot.com, is dedicated to the park’s restoration and is maintained by Harrington and other volunteers. To find out more please visit the blog or come and attend a monthly Congress Heights Civic Association meeting, held the second Monday of each month, to get involved.