Fun-Filled Day Draws Crowds to the Southeast Landmark
As a teenager, Drew Dunmore recalls scaling the towering black iron rod fence that runs along the perimeter of the 183-acre east campus at St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital with his brothers. Each week, the boys would climb the fence and comb the property, chock full of mighty Oaks, in search of firewood.
The Dunmore brothers would empty their weekly bounties into a Radio Flyer wagon, which they strategically placed on the other side of the fortress, and together they'd haul the branches and broken limbs back to their home at Douglass Dwellings in Southeast.
"That's how we would make our little change," said Dunmore, a retired business owner and Ward 8 resident.
Dunmore, 65, returned to his old stomping grounds and relived memories of his youth on Saturday, July 28 when St. Elizabeths East Campus opened its gates to District residents for its Season of Discovery celebration. The event attracted a diverse group of longtime Ward 8 residents and new gentrifiers, along with former St. Elizabeths' patients and employees who took advantage of the beautiful summer day and headed to the iconic landmark to participate in a host of fun-filled activities.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor of Planning and Economic Development and Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), kicked off the celebration with opening remarks before the three blended seamlessly into the crowd to mingle with guests in between stops at the numerous vendor stands located throughout the grounds.
Vendors from the Ward 8 Farmers' Market, McCleaf's Orchard and the Rainbow Hill Farm lined tables with an assortment of shiny and succulent red tomatoes, emerald green zucchini and pints of plump blueberries, among other fresh and organic fruits, vegetables and meats. Some customers filled shopping bags with the tasty treats to enjoy later, while others seized the moment, and quickly peeled the skins off of Navel oranges and popped the juicy slices into their mouths.
Farmers weren't the only ones on-hand to hawk their wares.
Proud St. Elizabeths' patients beamed as they displayed their artwork which consisted of watercolors and charcoal drawings, still photographs of area landmarks and hand-woven bracelets and necklaces that caught both the eye of seasoned art collectors and novices during the festival.
But, the fun didn't stop there.
Children enjoyed a variety of activities that included games and arts and crafts. Balloon artists helped youngsters create animals and light sabres, while classically trained artists used young, supple cheeks as their canvasses, daubing an assortment of tangerine orange, black, white, gray, brown and yellow water-soluble paint on their faces and transforming their tiny visages into lions, rabbits and tigers.
Carla Merritt brought her young son and his friend to the event. The two Olympic-bound fencers engaged in an intense sword fight using balloons as their foils. Touché!
"It's a play date," said the Southeast resident, with a laugh, as she watched the make-believe sword fight unfold.
Patricia Allen knew that she would be babysitting her niece, Kyrsten on Saturday. So, she decided to bring her to the Season of Discovery celebration. And, judging by the looks of it, Allen made the right decision. The little girl appeared mesmerized with her paintbrush in hand and a bucket of scarlet red paint by her side. She created her very own masterpiece on a gigantic canvas that was specifically set up for young, aspiring artists to hone their craft.
"I saw the advertisement from an email I got from a listserv," Allen said. "It looked like it would be a good activity," the Southeast resident said.
Later during the afternoon, visitors enjoyed a unique musical experience. The shuttered hospital's red brick buildings served as the backdrop for a stage where an array of singers and musicians showcased their talents before an appreciative audience. But, a spirited performance by the African Heritage Drummers and Dancers brought the crowd to its feet. A group of young men ages eight to 20, jammed on djembes – African hand drums – which reverberated throughout the campus and compelled the crowd to clap their hands to the rhythm of the drums.
Public access to St. Elizabeths East Campus has been restricted in the past, however, organizers used the event to showcase the development of the property to the community on Saturday. The District, sought to drum up local support to revitalize the facility which is set to welcome 4,400 U.S. Coast Guard employees in 2013.
The District and potential developers hope to transform the grounds into a multi-purpose property with residential, commercial and possibly an educational facility.
A number of Ward 8 residents said that they also hope the development project will give the ward a whole new look and feel.
Merritt, who has lived in Ward 8 for many years, remains optimistic about the ward's future. She said that the Season of Discovery event on the grounds of St. Elizabeths, counts among many of the interesting locales, breathtaking vistas, art museums and historic landmarks that Ward 8 has to offer. She fully expects that similar festivals and special events will prompt tourists and District residents alike to cross the Anacostia River to learn about the area's rich and storied past.
"I think that it's going to [spark interest] and grow," she said, referring to the redevelopment of St. Elizabeths' grounds and the surrounding neighborhoods. "I'm hoping that it will. Anything that they can do to attract people to this side of the river is good."