Every generation has its own Fort Reno. In the summer of 1968, the first concerts at the Tenleytown park were intended as a balm for a riot-scarred city. In the ’70s, before the Metro opened and the neighborhood upscaled, Fort Reno was a home for hippies and blues rockers. As the city’s DIY rock scenes blossomed, it became a place for new wavers and then punks—an identity Fort Reno has kept even as D.C. hardcore has given way to D.C. post-hardcore and today’s atomized indie-rock scene.
Fort Reno’s picnic item of choice these days may be the Whole Foods box, but it’s still where the city’s punks—ones who live in group houses, as well as ones who now have kids—hang out. It remains an icon of the Washington music scene even as other legendary venues, like d.c. space and the old 9:30 Club, have gone away. Booking remains stubbornly local. It’s free, doesn’t advertise, and has no sponsors. A Good Humor truck is a reliable mainstay, but otherwise it’s a rare example of art without commerce.
Local legends like Danny Gatton, Liz Meyer, Root Boy Slim, The Nighthawks, The Razz, The Slickee Boys, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bratmobile, Unrest, Jawbox, The Dismemberment Plan, Q and Not U, and Black Eyes have all played its haggard stage. So have a lot of less famous bands, too—including my own.
Fort Reno Park was really a fort—a stronghold of the Union army that eventually became a home for freed slaves and, later, a reservoir. Today, the fort and the park are managed by the National Park Service. If a ranger were ever to offer a history tour of D.C. music, it might sound a bit like this.
The concerts began during the summer of 1968, the year riots erupted following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Barbara Luchs and other Tenleytown residents, Father George Dennis, a Jesuit priest, filed the papers to form Neighborhood Planning Council No. 3, which organized the series. In the early years, the concerts featured acid-drenched hippie bands and blues-driven roots rock.
Barbara Luchs, 88, served as secretary of the Tenleytown Neighborhood Planning Council from ’68 into the 1990s, and as board member of the Northwest Youth Alliance from the late ’90s into the 2000s: The city virtually blew up in 1968, and people all over the city, especially those of us who had teenagers, did everything that we could to bring peace back to the neighborhood.
Emily Swartz, 67, worked for the Neighborhood Planning Council in the early 1980s: After the riots, so much was destroyed that the city was in shock. There was a real need for programs for kids. A lot of kids, little kids on up, were on the street with nothing to do.
Amanda MacKaye, 41, books Fort Reno, played in The Routineers, Desiderata: After the riots in D.C., there were free concerts in D.C. all over, outdoor events for people to go to. All neighborhoods had to do was get together a planning committee and plan it. People in Tenleytown just got their papers together.
Eric Blitte, 50, owns Tenleytown Painting: I was probably 6 or 7 years old, and we would ride our bicycles up there. I lived, like, five blocks away, and we’d hear music and go on up. As soon as [Fort Reno] started, we started going. I remember seeing Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady there before they moved to San Francisco and became Jefferson Airplane.
Marshall Keith, 57, played in The Slickee Boys: I went to Wilson High School for half a year in 1970, and I started going that summer. I think I saw Claude Jones; Joe Triplett was in that band. That was still in the hippie days—alcohol drinking, drugs floating around. At that point they didn’t start cracking down.
Blitte: The old stage was over by Belt Road toward Wisconsin. It was an old wooden box, a concrete slab, a basketball hoop, and a pavilion that we called the shelter. The street gangs hung out by the shelter. Sometimes you saw 50 chopped-out Harleys in the late ’60s to the mid-’70s....I remember being a little kid and seeing 2- or 3-foot plastic bongs, people getting stoned and drinking, and no one said anything. It was a blue-collar town back then.
Keith: Me and my friends were so young none of us drove. We probably hitchhiked there...All my friends were from Rockville and would come to my house to do things in D.C. We went to a lot of anti-war marches from late ’68 through 1970. They were basically an excuse for us to party, get out of the house, and hang with freaks. Fort Reno seemed like an extension of that—a bunch of kids hanging out on the grass.