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.