Everyone from Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Don Kurth and wife Dee to Barack Obama volunteered their time Monday as part of National Day of Service. In D.C., people were out in force. Here is Kurth’s report:
Don Kurth’s Inauguration Report – Marvin Gaye Park Clean-up Project
Monday, January 19, 2009
Washington, D.C. – Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been designated as a National Day of Service across America. I am sure people back home in the Inland Empire had no problem finding lots of worthwhile projects on which to spend a few hours being of service to our nation. But being here in Washington, D.C., as out-of-towners, my wife, Dee, and I really had no idea what service projects would be available to us. Luckily, some of my classmates from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government had tracked down a community clean-up project at Marvin Gaye Park right here in D.C. and invited us to join the 350 volunteers planning to tackle the parks renewal.
Marvin Gaye Park is located in a poor, African-American neighborhood in the northeastern section of the city. Originally named Watts Branch stream park, it is the longest city park in Washington, D.C., winding almost 1.6 miles through some pretty tough, drug infested areas. The name was changed a few years ago to Marvin Gaye Park to honor the famous singer who grew up nearby. The park had fallen into disrepair over the years until a group of local citizens created a public-private park revitalization project. We worked with the “Down by the Riverside Campaign of Watts Branch Park” of the Washington Parks and People group. If you are interested, you can find the entire story at: http://washingtonparks.net/wattsbranch.html .
At the turn of the last century, the Watts Branch was a woodland stream in which people could fish and even swim during the warm summer months. After decades of neglect though, by the turn of our most recent century, it looked more like a sewer than a mountain stream. The clean-up project began around 2001. Between the project’s inception in 2001 and 2006, volunteers have removed a total of 1950 old tires, 78 abandoned cars and trucks, 7800 used hypodermic needles and 20,000 bags of garbage.
Our goals for the day were somewhat more modest, but we did want to find a way to contribute what we could to this national day of service. Armed with little more than the name of the park, Dee and I set out on the morning of Martin Luther King’s birthday to find the Marvin Gaye Park and see how we could be of service in our nation’s capital. We were soon to learn that our task would not be as easy as we had envisioned. The first two taxi drivers claimed not to know where the park was, despite our destination being only a ten minute drive from where we began! The first cab would not even let us get in when we told him where we wanted to go. The second one picked us up but when we explained where we were going, he quickly told us he did not know how to get there, pulled over and told us to get out of his cab near Union Station.
Undaunted, we went into Union Station to find a map or directions to the park. We finally met a kind woman whose son lived near the park. She gave us excellent directions on the back of a paper towel. Armed with her paper towel map, we headed back to the street to find a cab. In the cabbies’ defense, the streets are a madhouse here today and with all the visitors in town for the Inauguration, I am sure there are lots of easier fares than our fare to a dubious neighborhood with little chance of a fare back to town. We soon flagged down two more cabs in succession, each of which refused to take us to our destination. Finally, we hopped into the cab of an older African American driver who told us that he did, indeed, know where Marvin Gaye Park was located. In fact, he had grown up nearby and had gone to elementary school just a few blocks from the park.
On the way there he asked us twice why we were going out to a neighborhood like that. I guess he finally believed my story that we were going out there to help clean up the park for MLK Day because he finally warmed up a bit and showed us his childhood elementary school along the route. As we traveled, the neighborhood gradually degenerated and the street transients gradually increased in number. Finally we arrived at the park. A huge pile of garbage bags marked the spot where the earlier volunteers had done their service work. Dee and I met Behnan Mehrahkhani, the volunteer chief of maintenance, and Ian Tyndall, an architect who served as the project’s park designer. They put us to work immediately stacking tools and moving trash out of the park’s community center.
The Riverside Community Center, we soon learned, had been converted from the night club where singer Marvin Gaye originally got his start way back when! The inside mural (see photo) depicted the dancing and festivities that had filled the club in days gone by. The mural on the outside wall (see photo) had been artfully created from the shards of broken bottles fished out of the river during previous clean-up efforts.
My construction worker roots must have shown through (or perhaps just my eagerness to help!), because Behnan soon asked if I could help hang a few fire extinguishers on the walls to meet the local fire codes (see photos). Happy to oblige, I grabbed a drill and we had them up in no time while Dee documented our activity on digital film.
Finally, as darkness approached, we were the last volunteers to head for home. Knowing we had no way back to Capitol Hill, Ian offered to let us ride with him on his final garbage run! Grateful for any ride back to the Hill at that point we quickly accepted. In addition to the ride, Ian first took us on a fascinating tour of the long winding park as it followed the stream. As he showed us the parks renewal progress he related the history, stumbles and successes, of the project. His enthusiasm was fun to listen to. Actually, he reminded me of my friends back in Rancho Cucamonga who care so deeply for our city and have given of themselves to make things better for everyone there. Some work on historical buildings, others on horse trails, and still others on cultural events. They are community service patriots, just like Ian and his friends here in Washington. And although they are separated by three thousand miles of mountains, plains and rivers, the same red American blood flows strong in each of these national patriots.
Finally we arrived back on Capitol Hill and Ian dropped us off to get some rest and get ready for tomorrow’s Inaugural celebration. Dee and I were both exhausted. But we were proud to have a chance to contribute in our way to MLK Day and our National Day of Service for America.