Shepherd Park in Southeast DC, also known to locals as Malcolm X Park. Image by the author.

At the corner of Malcolm X Avenue and Martin Luther King Avenue in Congress Heights sits a federal park that’s known mostly to people who live in the area. Officially known to the National Park Service as Shepherd Park, residents have long dubbed it Malcolm X Park—not to be confused with Malcolm X/Meridian Hill Park in Northwest.

From a distance, Malcolm X Park Southeast may strike one as nothing more than an eyesore. Lush grass has been overtaken by gravel, glass, and cigarette butts. A symphony of honking horns, escalating conversations, and dirt bikes attack the eardrums. In 2017, there was a petition to get the park closed as neighbors worried about drug activity, crime, and other safety issues in the centrally-located space.

This Malcolm X Park is a source of contention. “There's this dividing line—those who go into the park and those who don’t,” says Dr. Judy Lubin, president of the Center for Urban and Racial Equity.

An important community space

But the park never closed, and on closer review, another scene emerges. It’s a space where togetherness happens—longtime friends embrace and hang out, and you can see the word “unity” spray-painted alongside a DC flag on a planter. Sometimes birds outsing the city’s sounds, and when I spent time there, an unexpected feeling of home began to set it.

Lubin, an adjunct professor at Howard University, instructed a group of students on a National Park Service (NPS) initiative known as a “rapid ethnographic assessment procedure.” It's one tool used to understand how a park is being used before any significant changes are made to the space. Lubin's research began in the summer of 2017 and concluded last summer, and she submitted a report to NPS this week. She says the agency has indicated that it will organize programing in the park to make it more inviting.

NPS spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles says that Lubin's research “will help us better understand community perspectives and how to leverage capacity to meet those needs” at the park. She says that later this year, NPS will begin a larger, more formal public process that looks at the current condition of the park and gathers recommendations from community members for recreational and educational opportunities that they desire for the space.

In her research, Lubin has learned how meaningful the park is to those who inhabit it. She has met older black men, many of them longtime friends, who congregate to shoot the breeze. Others use it to catch up on community happenings or to get information about jobs. One guy enjoyed bird watching. Another man grew up near the park and catches the bus back everyday. “That's his source of connection to the community and to his friends,” she says.

Image by the author.

Kyle Bacon, a director at the DC branch of the US Dream Academy, works with children whose families have a history of incarceration. The nonprofit is headquartered nearby, and he and participants engaged in service learning projects bring bags of food or hygiene products to people at the park.

“It’s about going out and connecting—not just handing out bags but interacting with our neighborhoods who are living in the area,” he says. “A lot of our community members who spend time in the park are using it for rest because they may be experiencing insecure housing or there are other social benefits for them. America really has a challenge with not seeing our fellow neighbor—people will walk past and not acknowledge [them]. People don’t want to be bothered because they are afraid they're going to be asked for money or food.”

Most times, people in the park are excited to see the kids “out and about doing positive things,” Bacon says. “And they're excited that someone sees and engages them.”

Image by the author.

Lubin, whose research includes both Meridian Hill Park and Shepherd Park, points out that the former was once a place ridden with crime. “It was largely the efforts of community members around Meridian Hill that changed things—and also the population around the park changing [because of] gentrification.”

Likewise, Congress Heights residents are being proactive. “We spoke to a couple of users of the park who organized a cleanup out of concern that the park would be closed—they said we're going to take it upon ourselves to clean up and show that we're taking care of the space,” she says.

And while threats of drugs and violence are valid concerns, the park isn’t the problem, Lubin contends. “It’s the broader issue of homelessness, and joblessness, marginalization, and substance abuse that are happening. The park is an indicator of what’s happening in the community, so the response needs to be relative to the issues that the community is facing.”

This article has been updated with a comment from NPS spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles.

This article is part of Greater Greater Washington’s Urbanist Journalism Fellowship program, which is made possible through a collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project.

Christina Sturdivant Sani is a proud DC native whose work has exposed disparities and injustices that permeate under-resourced communities. She finds joy in highlighting creative solutions in this rapidly changing city. As a coffee shop connoisseur, she has a list of more than 60 cafes that she's visited in the District. If you see her at your local shop, story ideas are welcome!