Service Day

Posted on 06 May 2009

Last weekend I did a day of service in DC.  This involved planting a bunch of red maples in one of the city’s urban parks in northeast DC, Marvin Gaye Park. Our site was right next to one of DC’s largest housing projects (Lincoln Heights), and in the past was used as a popular spot for dealing heroin and other drugs. The park’s turn around apparently began when they decided to set up a Saturday farmers’ market there–i.e. bring in some kids and candy, as the leader of our project phrased it, to scare away the drug dealers.

Most frightening, however, is the fact that this whole neighborhood is a virtual “dead zone”, in terms of shopping: despite it being an obviously residential area (granted, with some industrial activity as well), we were told that the nearest grocery store is at least two separate bus rides away. Not to worry–there are plenty of McDonalds, KFCs and other fast food chains to choose from. No wonder this country has problems with diet…

Digging in the ground, we were introduced to a whole new layer of the neighborhood, as it were.  This was real city dirt, if you know what I mean.  Our shovels and pick axes (wielded with much enthusiasm, variable efficacy and more than a little relish) turned up plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, empty lipstick tubes, and broken glass of all colors.  Underneath the grass, the soil itself was tightly packed, with some clay and–the prize!–giant clumps of concrete and asphalt that reeked like an oil field.  Hmmm.  Pretty sure we shouldn’t have been tossing those around like rocks…

Anyhow, it was very exciting to learn how to plant a tree  (actually, three: we named ours Gloria, Esteban, and Ramon–not sure why the Spanish theme), and I hope we didn’t do too horrendous a job.  Afterwards we were unexpectedly treated to a real taste of the surrounding community, or Ward 7, as it’s known: it just so happened that they were putting on a parade!  No one ever explained why, to us, but a banner over the main street proudly proclaimed: “1st Annual Nannie Helen Burroughs Day Parade.”  (After Googling it, I found out that Nannie was an inspirational African American woman who lived most of her life in DC and founded the National Association of Colored Women, among other things.  May 2, our day of service, was her birthday).  So we stood on the roadside and cheered and waved, and enjoyed the show.  And what a show it was.

A steel drum band playing everything from Bob Marley to Akon warmed up the street before the parade began, as mothers with strollers and friendly old ladies carrying fold-out chairs quietly set up along the main route.  Clouds threatened and a few sprinkles of rain fell as the preparations advanced, but the weather looked like it would hold off.  When the band fell silent we hung for several moments in anticipation, necks craning down the main drag (also known as Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue) for any sign of action. 

And then the procession began.  Singing troops of girl scouts dressed up as giant cookies were followed by highschool bands in sweat suits and scantilly-clad dancers whose hips seemed to move with impossible fluidity, regardless of age; fancy but under-decorated convertibles rolled past with girls in street clothes tossing candy from the back seat, or sometimes just a single guy posed soberly behind the wheel (these guys didn’t have any sign identifying themselves or what they represented; but then again, maybe they didn’t need any?); young men and women carried signs that read “Happy Birthday Nannie” and “Ward 7 ROCKS” in big, bright red letters; a delegation of Native Americans walked by in full regalia, from beaded tunics to antler headdresses and woven moccasins; and, ironically, somewhere in there, a giant Safeway truck lumbered through, like a flash of reality slipped slyly into the festivities to remind everyone that those two bus rides laden with grocery bags are well worth the trip.

A highschool band and dancers in the Nannie Helen Burroughs Parade.

A highschool band and dancers in the Nannie Helen Burroughs Parade.


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