A Neglected Stretch of Land Becomes Community’s Pride


Parks can be majestic places with serene settings and gentle breezes that touch the soul. Marvin Gaye’s music is like that too. Put on any of the soulful crooner’s early love songs, and they can take the place of a glass of wine or a setting sun.

Six blocks from where Gaye grew up in northeast Washington is a patch of grass and woods along Watts Branch, a 3.7-mile creek that runs into the Anacostia River. It’s perfect for a park, except for years it’s been a shady spot for winos and drug addicts. Local kids didn’t play there. The community nicknamed it “Needle Park” because it was littered with used syringes.

Today there’s a handmade sign nailed to a light pole calling the patch “Marvin Gaye Amphitheatre.” It’s a small sign, but it signals great hope.


Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks & People, wants to turn the entire Watts Branch creekside into a tribute to Marvin Gaye, starting with Needle Park.

Coleman’s nonprofit group goes into neighborhoods and rehabs parks. Its mission is “to reconnect people with the land and use the land to reconnect people with each other.” In northeast Washington, “we started talking to people and we kept hearing these great stories about Marvin Gaye and thought, why not call the park Marvin Gaye Park?”

Last year on Marvin Gaye’s birthday--April 2--Parks & People began cleaning up a 1.6-mile section of Watts Branch. During the next 14 months, more than 4,000 volunteers contributed to the effort. More than 7,000 bags of garbage were collected. Twenty-six abandoned cars were hauled away--including one that contained a body. About 2,000 hypodermic needles were picked up. Finally, in June, the park was ready.

On several recent Saturdays, Coleman and his team set up shop there. Thanks to the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks, which donated a mobile stage, they’ve been holding summer concerts and showing movies.

Last Saturday, a carnival was sponsored by a church group, then a concert featured the East of the River steel band and a Native American flute player. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays through the summer, children growing crops at the nearby Robert Lederer Youth Gardens, a half-acre farm that neighborhood kids run, come to sell their produce.

Needle Park has been clean for more than a month, and the kids are returning.

Before Marvin Gaye became the Marvin Gaye who would pen songs about revolution, social protest and, of course, sexual healing, he was a lanky kid in Washington who loved basketball. When he was 14, he and his family moved to East Capitol Dwellings, a housing complex in easternmost Washington. That would be his home until the ‘60s, when he’d leave for the bright lights and “shoo-wop sound” in Detroit.

In East Capitol Dwellings, he met two people who became lifelong friends, Reese Palmer and Peasie Adams. They loved to sing too. Palmer, Gaye and a few other neighborhood cats would stand on corners and sing doo-wop.

“Marvin’s house was the last stop on the bus line,” remembers Palmer, 64, who sings with the Orioles, a doo-wop group. “After school, we would get off the bus and just sing, didn’t matter where.”

Often, kids would meet at Adams’ house to sing. Marvin’s father, a Pentecostal minister who ruled his house with an iron hand and a fire-laced tongue, never approved. Marvin and his father would often clash.

“His father would trip, man,” Palmer says. “His dad used to tell my father that people that sang on corners were bums. He used to refer to me as the ‘head bum’ and tell me that I was leading Marvin down the wrong path.”

That path took Marvin to superstardom. Along the way, he developed a cocaine habit. Convinced that someone was trying to harm his family, he demanded that his father keep a gun--and sent one via his bodyguard. One day when Marvin came to visit, a fight broke out between him and his dad. Marvin’s father grabbed the gun from under the pillow where he kept it and shot Marvin dead.

On a sunny July afternoon in the park, there are no more needles, only children and folks from People & Parks setting up a youth talent show.

None of the kids has a prepared routine. About 20 children, 15 and younger, stand on the stage. A dozen slate-gray folding chairs sit in the grass. Microphones rest in their cradles. Two speakers stand on metallic legs. This is the Marvin Gaye Amphitheatre.

As soon as Lil’ Bow Wow’s voice comes through the speakers, all 20 kids become Lil’ Bow Wow. When someone pops in the go-go band Backyard, 20 little bodies become Jell-O, giggling and jiggling across the stage.

Off to the right of the stage is a small bridge that separates Clay Terrace, a tough housing complex, from the park.

“Just look at this,” says Clay Terrace resident Reg Ward, 24 stretching his arms toward the kids. “This is why I come down here. What’s that saying? In Africa, one child is raised by the village. That’s how it is down here. People come through here now and throw trash in the trash cans. I know that don’t sound like much, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”