Community Split on Future of D.C.’s Shepherd Park

The small plot of land in Southeast known as Shepherd Park has been a bone of contention among residents in the area for decades. But a recent social media campaign urging the closure of the park has been a call to action for some community members to continue decades-old efforts to restoring the long-neglected park.

In October, Nikki Peele, author of the Congress Heights on the Rise blog, launched an online petition to close the park, which rests on the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenues in Ward 8, pointing out several longstanding issues in the park, including littering, public intoxication, fights and other illegal activity.

The petition called for a fence to be built around the park until residents and city officials could develop a plan of action for its restoration.

“Shepherd Park is not a community park — at least not for the children, teens, adults, seniors and families that live in Congress Heights,” the petition read. “Residents of this community have never been able to utilize that park in any significant way for over four decades. … It is a hangout spot, a training ground for lawless and anti-social behavior.”

Though several of the issues raised resonated with many residents, some did not like the tone of the petition, including community activist Yango Sawyer, who said many of the park’s users struggle with substance abuse and mental illness and need resources to deal with their challenges.

Sawyer said his own 30-year journey with substance abuse gives him hope that a transformation can be made in the park and the lives of the many people who use it.

“Too many times these people are left out,” he said. “I want to make them a part of their own rescue.”

Since the release of the petition, Sawyer and other community leaders have moved to offer much-needed services to Shepherd Park’s most frequent users.

He and his team have used social media for coordinating and documenting cleanup efforts, food giveaways and to boost his push to rename the park after the late Marion Barry.

Bill Wilson, 75, and his friends say they have been cleaning the park for years and Sawyer’s recent efforts to get them supplies have helped the keep the park clean.

He said he goes to the park to play cards and chess, but many of the others who frequent the park are often there because they have nowhere to go until the nearby homeless shelter does intake at 7 p.m.

“I feel the homeless should have a place to go,” said Wilson, who experienced homelessness in the past. “If you put a fence around the park, how will they get these services?”

Several organizations offer regular and sporadic food and health services within the park.

“The park has seen its up and downs,” said Philip Pannell, the former president of Congress Heights Civic Association. “I would hope that people concerned with the park actually get involved in the park beyond cyber space.”

Lisa B., 53, a Congress Heights resident, called Shepherd Park a “pseudo park” and said there should be more emphasis on bringing more quality park amenities such as grass and benches.

“You shouldn’t be going to park looking for social services,” she said. “It would be wonderful if people could use this park to enjoy nature.”

Nathan Harrington, who has worked for year toward Shepherd Park restoration as chair of the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway, highlighted positive events that have taken place in the park, including Black Lives Matter protests, Art All Night and even a financial empowerment workshop.

“Closing the park might temporarily move some people and their problems to another location, but it would send a terrible message about the type of community we want to be,” Harrington wrote in a blog post. “We hope that the attention generated by the petition will lead to constructive discussion of the future of the park that includes all users as partners in community.”

He said the community’s leaders would continue to have inclusive conversations about how to address issues in the park and service the needs of residents.

Tatyana Hopkins – Washington Informer Contributing Writer

Tatyana Hopkins has always wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up she knew she wanted to be a journalist. To her there were too many issues in the world to pick a career that would force her to just tackle one. The recent Howard University graduate is thankful to have a job and enjoys the thrill she gets from chasing the story, meeting new people and adding new bits of obscure information to her knowledge base. Dubbed with the nickname “Fun Fact” by her friends, Tatyana seems to be full of seemingly “random and useless” facts. Meanwhile, the rising rents in D.C. have driven her to wonder about the length of the adverse possession statute of limitations (15 years?). Despite disliking public speaking, she remembers being scolded for talking in class or for holding up strangers in drawn-out conversations. Her need to understand the world and its various inhabitants frequently lands her in conversations on topics often deemed taboo: politics, religion and money. Tatyana avoided sports in high school she because the thought of a crowd watching her play freaked her out, but found herself studying Arabic, traveling to Egypt and eating a pigeon. She uses social media to scope out meaningful and interesting stories and has been calling attention to fake news on the Internet for years.

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One Comment

  1. This article is biased. Why not interview one of the hundreds of residents who signed Nikki’s petition?? Is the park intended to be for drug use, lawlessness, or even as some in the article put it – for social services for the homeless? I thought the park was supposed to be for families and children. But families and children can’t use the park because it is far far too dangerous. This is a safety and public health issue for the community! Any ANC commissioner or city council member who fails to act is being grossly irresponsible!

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