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Green thumbs

In D.C., it’s more than just gardening

(Published August 27, 2001)


Staff Writer

Members of the Brookland Garden Club put teamwork into action to maintain the traffic island at Michigan Avenue and 12th Street NE that they transformed into a rock garden last summer.

Flower gardens blossoming in public space are becoming commonplace in many D.C. neighborhoods, as residents increasingly are banding together as gardening clubs that focus much of their volunteer labor and expertise on community improvement projects.

And these neighborhood gardens are becoming much more visible as they grow more established, and as more neighborhood groups in every ward continue to "adopt" neglected District and federal pocket parks.

LeDroit Park residents are just a few of the many residents and neighborhoods in the District who are involved in neighborhood beautification projects, beautification committees, green space improvement projects or garden clubs.

Michael Little and Forest Wilson, who has used his green thumb to help beautify his neighborhood for the past 10 years, are among residents who banded together to create a rock garden at the corner of T Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW when the neglected area became a hazard to the community.

Little, whose house is adjacent to the park, said residents decided to step in when "it wasn’t getting any service from the city. Two trees were neglected to the point of rot," he said.

With help from 5C04 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Vicky Leonard-Chambers, the residents took ownership of their community to rid the area of what had become a dumping ground for other people’s rubbish – from bottles to car tires. There were overgrown hedges and people would even hide in it, Little said.

Leonard-Chambers said she used $300 from her $500 ANC allotment to aid the project. Fannie Mae also contributed $250 in addition to the residents contributing money from their own pockets, she said.

The result was the rock garden -- decorated with spider plants, evergreens and vincas. Little, an artist, interior designer and home improvement contractor who was responsible for the landscaping, said residents decided to create a rock garden because it would be easy to care for.

Leonard-Chambers described these projects as more than just residents coming together to stimulate their knowledge and love for gardening.

"It’s about communities taking ownership. And it’s a great example of neighbors coming together, working together and creating team spirit," she said.

"When people who love to garden get together, they create beauty. There is something special about a beautiful neighborhood or a beautiful street."

For many residents participating in these beautification programs, it is also about making their neighborhoods less attractive for illegal activities.

"Anytime you improve green space it sends a message that this is a neighborhood that cares, and indirectly it’s a deterrent to crime – and if you make it a thing of beauty, the message is even stronger," said Kathy Chamberlain, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7’s Hillcrest neighborhood who has been active in organizing community gardening.

Vincent M. Spaulding, coordinator of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Clean City Initiative, said "there is a direct relationship between trash and litter and crime. The converse of that is beautification."

Spaulding and Chamberlain are just two of the many residents of Hillcrest, Fort Davis, Penn-Branch, Randle Highlands and other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River who have undertaken beautification projects, the hallmark being a project at Twining Square.

In April 2000, the National Park Service signed a five-year agreement with Chamberlain and over 30 area residents to work together to restore and maintain the small park on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 27th and 28th streets, after it suffered from neglect from the city over the years. In addition, a truck driver lost control of his vehicle in February 2000 and destroyed most of the shrubs on one side of the park.

"It looked horrible," said Chamberlain, describing the condition of the park before it was renovated.

Under the agreement with the Park Service, residents perform maintenance chores such as weeding, trimming, raking, while the NPS does the heavy-duty work of mowing and anything that involves power tools, Chamberlain said. Residents also recommend to the National Park Service any changes they want – such as paving, benches, fountains -- and the Park Service takes this under consideration. Residents can recommend and plant flowers, but the NPS has final say on the type of plant and location, Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain and her neighbors also created a garden at the historic Engine Co. 19 firehouse at Pennsylvania Avenue and 28th Place SE. To show how important the appearance of the firehouse was to the community and to its residents, Chamberlain said the residents decided to undertake a garden beautification project in March 2000. Garden Resources of Washington (GROW) provided a $300 grant for the purchase of materials for the garden. Several people contributed plants, dirt, and labor, Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain noted that since the creation of the garden, the relationship between residents and the firemen has become a lot stronger.

"We have established a good rapport," Chamberlain said. In addition, she said the firemen started attending ANC meetings.

Other gardening projects in Ward 7 can be seen at Fort Baker Drive and W Street SE, where Chamberlain and Hillcrest resident Gladys Miller converted what was a weedy area that attracted trash and litter into a flower garden, and the Penn-Branch Beautification Project at Carpenter and O Streets SE.

Another example of communities taking ownership can be seen in the once drug-ridden neighborhood of Trinidad in Northeast Washington’s Ward 5.

"This community was so devastated with crime, our first goal was to clean the community up," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Wilhelmina Lawson, describing the creation of the neighborhood’s Beautification Committee.

The committee, which celebrated its first anniversary Aug. 11, has undertaken such projects as creating a path that would prevent people from walking on the lawn of the Joseph H. Cole Fitness Center, formerly Wheatley Recreation Center. The committee also created a rock garden at Wheatley Elementary School, 1299 Neal St. NE.

Lawson said the initial projects have created a need for "perpetual beautification." The most recent project undertaken by the committee includes the weeding and manicuring of flower and tree boxes on Florida Avenue, from West Virginia to Trinidad avenues in NE.

Some garden clubs or beautification committees go beyond beautifying public spaces in a community. The Greater Brookland Garden Club in Northeast and the Hillcrest Garden Tour in Southeast both feature home and garden tours – something that for years was generally confined to areas such as Capitol Hill or Georgetown.

Jeff Wilson, a charter member of the Brookland garden group, said the garden/house tour aspect is fairly new, but members of the club are thinking about making the event annual and open to the public. The Brookland tour has so far featured the home and garden of club members who volunteer to showcase their property for other club members as part of a potluck meal which requires participants to bring a dish from their garden.

The Hillcrest Garden Tour, organized by Hillcrest resident Mary Hammond, is similar to the Brookland tour but is open to the public. The garden/house tour is usually advertised but attended mostly by present and former Hillcrest residents, Hammond said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator