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Drummers and neighbors at odds over noise

(Published June 14, 1999)

By LUTISHIA PHILLIPS

Staff Writer

May 30 was like every other Sunday at Malcolm X Park. The sun had done its normal job in setting up a nice day at the park for the residents, tourists and other park patrons who regularly come to play soccer, read, meet or just bask. And as usual, at about 5 p.m., drummers of every race and age group gathered for their Sunday tradition: a drumming circle.

Only that day did not turn out like every Sunday. For the first time in 30 years, the drummers were told to stop.

At about 7:30 p.m., U.S. Park Police told the circle of about 20 drummers their noise level was too high and they had to stop.

Drummer Tabib said the police told them that some people were complaining about the noise and that they had to stop drumming by 7 p.m.

"We asked them who these people were and they said some people that live in the area," Tabib said. "Then they just stood there to make sure we weren’t going to start again."

"We just told them to tone it down," said Sgt. John Dewey. Dewey, one of the officers on the scene that Sunday, said police have received numerous complaints over recent months from residents in the area. He said according to park police policy he couldn’t disclose the names of the complainants. The park, located at 16th and Euclid streets NW, is federal property and falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Park Police.

"Residents say they’ve heard drumming as early as 9 in the morning and early afternoon," said Dewey, noting he has heard the drumming three blocks away. He said some residents complained they’ve had to leave their homes because of the noise.

"People have always complained about the drumming," Dewey said. "If the drummers continue to grow, then they will have to get a special-use permit and a time to drum.

"We’re trying to work with them. We want everyone to enjoy the park."

So far no one has come forward to complain directly to the drummers. But Tabib and other drummers said they noticed a couple of people who recently walked through the park and pointed at them with an "unhappy look" on their faces.

Supporter Bonnie Gant said the group has made many attempts to contact the National Park Service, which maintains the federal park, but has received no response. She says the group plans to draft a letter for each apartment building that surrounds the park asking for those who have complaints to meet with them.

On June 2 the drummers and their supporters circulated a petition throughout the park, collecting signatures in support of the drumming. Gant said no one disturbed them this time, even though the park seemed extra full of people. The whole park was alive with couples and families strewn across the grass blowing bubbles and eating ice cream. Single people let their dogs run free, often interrupting an intense game of soccer happening in the center of the park.

And, like most Sundays, people playing flutes, saxophones and other small percussion instruments joined the cipher of congas, jibes and bass. Some senior citizens tapped their feet and clapped along. One man added to the jam by beating on a water bottle. Another jumped in the middle of the drummers, emptied his pockets, stripped off his shirt, and went into an impromptu African dance. People began to surround the circle, cheering and "wooing" him on.

For residents and tourists of all nationalities, Malcolm X Park – officially known as Meridian Hill Park -- has been one place in the city where the District’s reputation for being a multicultural city shines through. To many it is the one of the few places in the city that brings together all cultures.

And for the drummers, each Sunday is a ritual. They come from every part of the city and the suburbs to keep this cultural tradition going.

"For me it’s the tradition that keeps me coming back," said drummer Dave "Jolly D" Foreman, who started playing the drums just from going to the park. In the 10 years that he’s been going to the park, he said he’s noticed the atmosphere change.

"Now everyone comes out -- the elders, young kids, babies," he said.

ANC 1C Commissioner Eleanor Johnson, who lives in the nearby Dorchester Apartments, said the park is everyone’s friend.

"I’ve never seen the park vacant," said Johnson, who said she’s been watching the drummers for 18 years. She said drumming is one of the major free cultural performances that take place in the park.

"The drumming shouldn’t stop," she said.

Johnson and other supporters who live around the park say they don’t know why anyone would have a problem with the drummers. Gant said she hopes to reach a positive compromise with residents who may be bothered by the noise.

"I wish they would just come over and talk to us," Gant said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator