Meridian Hill Park, once the most violent national park in Washington, D.C., is now, thanks to the efforts of citizens involved with the Josephine Butler Parks Center, one of the most picturesque – and also one of the safest parks in the nation’s capital. The center – owned by and the headquarters of the pioneering non-profit Washington Parks and People – is in a grand old mansion overlooking Meridian Park’s 12 acres, also known as Malcolm X Park. Whereas once ambassadors to Hungary, and later Brazil, discussed affairs of state and hosted elegant balls in the mansion, today, in the district’s most culturally diverse community, local leaders and dedicated citizens brainstorm to improve the state of the capital city and its parks.
With its incubator loft for start-up community initiatives, headquarters for arts and educational organizations, tutoring for children, computer lab, special-event center and training space, the Josephine Butler Parks Center, named for a respected community leader, has become a “greenhouse” for rebuilding public spaces in inner-city Washington.
The 40-room, Renaissance Revival-style mansion had fallen into disrepair. After years of deferred maintenance, the nonprofit Friends of Meridian Hill took it over in 1990 and began a complete restoration. Then volunteers, including members of Washington Parks and People, moved on to cleaning up the park, which now has lush green grass and a volunteer park patrol.
Washington Parks and People has rehabilitated pocket parks throughout the city, including Unity Park in Adams Morgan. With new landscaping and new lighting, they transformed it into a plaza, a community gathering place. “Our goal is for every child growing up in Washington to have easy access to a park,” says Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks and People. “We can’t have community if we can’t physically get together. That’s why [Washington’s founding architect Pierre-Charles] L’Enfant integrated green space into the city plan.”
The Parks Center also plans open-air concerts in Meridian Park and performances by local musicians and dancers who tell the story of the community. “We want this to be the inner-city Wolf Trap,” says Coleman. “America’s cities can be great cultural centers. We want to use public space to prevent violence.”
The park and the center work hand in hand. Imani Drayton-Hill, managing director of the center’s Young Playwright’s Theater, an after-school program to teach children play-writing, says, “Working in a building that has such a diverse mix of arts and human -service organizations leads to exciting collaborations.”
Indeed, the groups that the center houses are startlingly diverse. One of them, Community Harvest, helped start farmers’ markets in low-income D.C. neighborhoods and now operates an urban organic farm in Anacostia. “Our mission is to reconnect people with the land, and to use the land to reconnect people with each other,” says John Friedrich, who heads Community Harvest.
Another group, Brain Food, is an after-school youth program dedicated to building life skills, such as job responsibility and self-esteem, through learning about food preparation and culinary arts.
“This building brings a wide array of individuals together to create community-run projects and programs such as farmers’ markets and youth theater,” says Friedrich. “It’s a place where conversations happen. That’s one marker of community. It’s a common space away from television, a place where people can have face time with one another.”
Coleman, who hopes that the center will serve as a living museum, adds, “This building is just a tool for a larger effort. It’s magic, it’s shabby-chic and, most of all, it’s a marvelous interchange.”