The mosaic stands on a corner of Minnesota and Deane avenues NE that is crowded with cars but almost entirely devoid of pedestrians, a strip of fast-food restaurants punctuated by a marvelously strange and abandoned library kiosk. Driving by, you may think little of the multi-colored portrait, might miss that it is a rendering of the cover for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 soul album What’s Going On. But if you stop, and wander, you may well find yourself delighting in one of Washington’s more intriguing parks, one that pays tribute to perhaps the city’s most famous native-born musician.
Much more is known about Gaye’s end than his beginning. In 1984, he was shot and killed by his father in Los Angeles after an argument. But Gaye is also a product of Washington. The park that bears his name, in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast, is a reminder that one of the great singers of the 20th century was a product of this city, where he was born, raised and became a musician.
Born in 1939, Gaye spent his early years in Southwest. He sang at the Randall Junior High School, near what is today the city’s reinvigorated Navy Yard neighborhood. (The school building itself, once a homeless shelter, is now owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) In 1954, Gaye’s father, a preacher, moved the Gay family (an artist’s flourish, the “e” was appended much later) to Northeast. They lived in the East Capitol Dwellings, a housing project that has since been demolished and is now a vacant lot. It was near there, at a playground on 61st Street NE, that Gaye gave what amounted to his first performance. Later, he recorded with the Marquees, his first group, at the home studio of Bo Diddley, on Rhode Island Avenue. That house, a private residence, still stands.
Marvin Gaye Park is the longest municipal park in D.C., capped at one end by the 61st Street playground. While Rock Creek Park is both larger and longer, it is run by the National Parks Service, as are most of Washington’s famous green spaces. Running alongside a creek known as the Watts Branch, which drains into the nearby Anacostia, Marvin Gaye Park threads through the city, meandering across the urban grid, while also defying it, banishing the endless noise of cars, replacing it with something resembling silence.
Walking along its paths on a December afternoon, one is hemmed in by trees, serenaded by the occasional songbird. The Watts Branch may not be one of the nation’s great waterways, but its gurgling is a comforting sign that even amidst all the steel, glass and concrete of modern life, nature can thrive. The border with Maryland is close by. Gazing at the houses on the other banks of the stream, you may imagine yourself, if only for a moment, in the backwoods of Tidewater Virginia.
You may also hear Gaye’s voice as it cries out in protest—you know we’ve got to find a way / to bring some lovin’ here today — but that part is left wholly to your imagination.
Sometimes, through the trees, the sagging outlines of an abandoned house are visible, a hint of the park’s difficult past. Officially known as Watts Branch Park until 2006, it was referred to as “Needle Park” by locals, degraded by illicit activities conducted in its more secluded nooks.
But that began to change in the new millennium, as decades-long divestment (of both money and upkeep) in American cities received greater attention. In 2001, The Washington Post reported how “volunteers have hauled away at least 40,000 bags of garbage, 14,000 hypodermic needles and 89 abandoned vehicles,” an astonishing amount of debris for only 1.6 narrowly-circumscribed miles of greenway. The park was renamed for Marvin Gaye in 2006 in a unanimous D.C. Council vote. Three years later, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a pragmatic progressive in the Obama mold, invested $2.4 million in what he called “one of the District’s most important park revitalization projects.”
Today, the park is tidy and well cared for. There’s a community farm and the aforementioned playground, where the equipment is fashioned in the shapes of musical instruments. The park anchors what remains to this day a working-class, largely African-American community. But the nearby neighborhood of Deanwood has been increasingly attracting moneyed young homebuyers, leading some to wonder if Northeast will soon see an influx of new residents.
Those residents are of the kind, presumably, who might eat at Marvin, a restaurant named for the singer off U Street. There, a “Marvin burger” with double cheese and bacon will set you back $16. (That Gaye was a vegetarian seems to have been overlooked.) A stroll through Marvin Gaye Park, however, remains blissfully free.
Photos: Eli Meir Kaplan
Alexander Nazaryan is a National Correspondent for Yahoo News. His time in D.C. is split between covering national politics on Capitol Hill and exploring the far corners of the Metro Area.