Arts Desk

What Went Wrong With the Planned Chuck Brown Memorial?

langdon-park

Langdon Park sits in a residential area in the eastern portion of Ward 5, just south of Rhode Island Avenue NE. Bordered by single-family homes, the vast, barbell-shaped green space is punctuated here and there by a playground, tennis courts, a pool, and a dog park. It’s a placid amenity in one of D.C.’s sleepier pockets, which makes it a surprising hot zone in the District’s ongoing struggle with the legacy of its homegrown sound, go-go.

If the city’s plans had come to fruition the way they were laid out in January, a 900-seat music venue named for Chuck Brown, the late godfather of go-go, would now be just weeks away from opening. But that’s not how the park’s neighbors envisioned things. After residents steadily lobbed the District with complaints about the forthcoming amphitheater, by March, the District had shrunk the venue to 200 seats. When neighbors still weren’t satisfied, the city axed the amphitheater entirely in June. Now D.C.’s monument to Brown, who created the rhythm that the city still dances to, will be without a dedicated place for music.

Go-go venues have evaporated at a quick pace in the D.C. area. The death of Brown last year seemed to mark the end of an era in this town—a time when go-go could be heard all over the city several nights a week. Especially for black, low- to middle-income Washingtonians—as well as anyone else who loves Brown’s music or recognizes its civic importance—spiking the Chuck Brown amphitheater might not just seem like a loss for go-go, but a loss for Brown’s D.C., and a big win for NIMBYs.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that neighbors in the immediate vicinity of Langdon Park wouldn’t want to be the primary bearers of Chuck Brown’s legacy. What’s more curious is why Langdon Park was chosen as a location to honor Brown in the first place.

***

On May 31, 2012, two weeks after Brown’s death at age 75, thousands of people packed the Washington Convention Center to send off the Godfather one last time. If the service mostly felt like a particularly dressed-up evening at the go-go—full band, all-star cameos—its eulogies had all the stuff of a campaign rally.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said Congress ought to establish a Chuck Brown Day. Then-Council Chairman Kwame Brown said D.C. should build a go-go hall of fame. And Mayor Vince Gray vowed to build a memorial—“a place where there’s action, a place where there’s people, a place where there’s traffic, a place where there will be the sounds of the city.” Gray might have been describing downtown, where junkyard go-go outfits still play outside Metro stops, or the U Street NW corridor, not far from where in 2009 the city renamed part of 7th Street “Chuck Brown Way.” So why Langdon?

“We would have loved to have put this downtown in a more well-traveled area, but this is another example of how the feds dictate what the District does,” says mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “Most of the larger parks that the District controls are in neighborhoods. It limited our choices.” Cobb Park, at Massachusetts Avenue and 2nd Street NW, was the only option close to downtown, but according to Christopher Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff, it didn’t work—mainly because its location right next to the 3rd Street Tunnel entrance to I-395 is not pedestrian friendly.

With D.C.’s more centrally located parks off the table, Gray’s staff began to research potential locations that were further afield, setting sights on Langdon and Ward 8’s Oxon Run Park because both already had small, amphitheater-style seating areas. Though it’s set in a quiet neighborhood much like Langdon Park, Oxon Run offered a setting farther from residences (and closer to a Metro stop). But the nod went to Langdon because its amphitheater area is slightly larger, according to Murphy. The city then solicited bids from architects to transform the tranquil park into what Mayor Gray, invoking one of Brown’s best-known songs, called at the godfather’s funeral “a place where Joe can run.”

Gray showed a preliminary concept for the memorial (shown below) to the public on Aug. 22, 2012, what would have been Brown’s 76th birthday. It included a small-scale renovation of the existing bandshell and a seating area accommodating 250 people.

chuck-brown-memorial-dc

Gray sent legislation to the Council that officially renamed the western portion of the park after Brown. On January 10, at the bill-signing ceremony, Gray showed a revised plan (shown below) produced by Cleveland Park design firm Marshall Moya in which the size of the venue had grown to 900 seats. Gray said it would be built in time to open on August 22, 2013.

So how did a modest rendering grow into a venue that can seat more people than the Howard Theatre? According to Rob Marus, a senior editor in Gray’s Office of Communications, the early designs “were mainly done to have something to show to the community as a potential concept for the idea of a park and amphitheater to honor Mr. Brown’s musical legacy.” The solicitation letter to architects did not include any specifications for the size of the venue. “Frankly, the dramatic difference in the size of the two amphitheaters was something that didn’t really stand out until we presented the winning design to the Langdon community, and they overwhelmingly objected,” Marus says.

chuck-brown-memorial2

The mayor’s office also publicized its plans for the memorial before consulting Langdon neighbors, a perceived snub that festered. “The mayor should have consulted the neighborhood through community meetings before naming the park after Brown and deciding to put up a huge eyesore of a memorial that most folks didn’t want,” says Yolanda Odunsi, whose house abuts the park.

It doesn’t help that Ward 5 residents already suspect the District government of foisting unwanted projects onto the ward, says Nolan Treadway, the advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area surrounding the park. “If you’re familiar with Ward 5 at all, you’re familiar with the old canard of the ‘dumping ground’ of strip clubs, trash transfer stations, and medical marijuana facilities. In some ways the amphitheater fell into this dynamic, I think in large part because the whole thing came as a surprise.” Residents, Treadway says, felt that the amphitheater was being forced upon them. “There were times I kind of had to remind people that this was something that was generally considered an amenity, not something you put in a red light district.”

“It’s not that the neighborhood doesn’t think Chuck Brown deserves a memorial,” says Delores Bushong, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. Treadway says the problems stem from the fact that the park already hosts several large-scale weekend parties a year. With D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s resources already stretched, residents were also concerned about the city maintaining and programming such a large venue. “At one point, they suggested the amphitheater could continue to be sparingly used, which strikes me as ridiculous,” says Eyder Peralta, who lives across the street from the site of the memorial. Neighbors feared that without regular events, the venue ran the risk of falling into disuse very quickly.

Bushong led the effort to completely erase the amphitheater from the plan, circulating petitions among her neighbors, emailing reporters, distributing fact sheets, and relentlessly lobbying District government officials. Marshall Moya revealed a revised plan in April that showed the pavilion’s seating area had been scaled back to accommodate only 200 people. On May 6, Treadway sent a letter to Mayor Gray outlining his constituents’ concerns that the smaller structure would still lead to problems with noise and trash and limit residents’ parking options. The letter suggested that the plan be shrunk even further into a “modest performance space,” an area where a stage could be set up if the need arose, but that wouldn’t be permanently designated for performances.

In June, representatives from DPR and the Department of General Services attended one of the monthly meetings hosted by Treadway and informed residents that two new designs had been produced, both with no amphitheater at all. The new plans (one concept is shown below) call for a statue of Brown on a central plaza with permeable pavers and a memorial wall. There’s no live music element, save for a series of permanent drum kits built into one of the shorter walls near the playground, for kids to create their own go-go beats.

latest-chuck-park

When word got out that the amphitheater had been scrapped, Brown fans cried foul. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry took to Twitter to denounce the amphitheater’s failure. Others questioned the point of such a staid memorial. “The plaza they are proposing to plop down there now seems aimless and without any ties to its surroundings or the people who live in the neighborhood,” Peralta says.

Without an amphitheater, what elements could help enliven the Chuck Brown memorial and remind visitors of the man it was named for?

“I think Chuck Brown would have preferred an improved recreation center with a music room and classes for kids in the neighborhood over an amphitheater,” says Odunsi. The Langdon Recreation Center could indeed use a facelift and an expansion of its amenities. Brown’s daughter Cherita Whiting, who has been involved in the planning process along with other family members, isn’t happy that the amphitheater fell apart. But she agrees that the park’s kid-friendliness should be a priority. “If this park will be a place of peace, where children can be safe and have fun, that would have gotten the biggest smile out of my dad.”

Even if the Langdon memorial never shapes up to be a full-fledged go-go venue, the city has promised lovers of D.C.’s native sound that it will provide plenty of other opportunities to celebrate Chuck Brown’s life. “This isn’t the end-all-be-all of the District’s Chuck Brown commemoration,” says Ribeiro. “This is just one aspect of it.”

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Jason Cherkis

    It actually seems like Gray administration put thought into the location. But here's everything you need to know:

    "Nolan Treadway, the advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area surrounding the park. “If you’re familiar with Ward 5 at all, you’re familiar with the old canard of the ‘dumping ground’ of strip clubs, trash transfer stations, and medical marijuana facilities. In some ways the amphitheater fell into this dynamic.."

    We've now come to the point in D.C. gentrification where an elected official compares a memorial to a trash transfer station.

  • drez
  • drez

    I still think endowing music scholarships In Chuck Brown's name would be a great way to honor his legacy.

  • not telling

    If the amphitheater is truly the amenity that advocates say it is, and Chuck Brown is truly the icon for the city that fans claim, then surely people all over town would be clamoring to host the amphitheater in their neighborhood park.

    Instead, all we hear about is how other neighborhoods are standing in the way of making this a reality.

  • http://www.ancnolan.com Nolan

    Jason,

    I didn't mean to compare the two in that way. I meant the reaction in the community was similar when a 900-seat amphitheater was dropped out of nowhere.

    You compare the location of the houses in the instagramed photo up there next to the "Chuck Brown Music Pavilion" sketch and you tell me if that were your house you'd be a-ok? Those are literally the people who this affects most and those are the ones you're dismissing.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Nolan: There could have been and most surely would have been time limits on concerts -- at Fort Reno there are limits on when they can play. Did you think about how the show space could have been used for kid programming on the weekends? Lectures, plays, community meetings, other kinds of events?

    Or did you just think Rare Essence was going to set up at 2 a.m. and play till dawn?

    The neighborhood's response was textbook and cliche. What is surprising is how it does seem like the Gray administration put thought into where the memorial should go. The neighborhood should have been consulted first. That was a mistake but it shouldn't have become the dealbreaker. Residents should have gotten past that -- after all this is a music venue not a trash dump. (It's petty to even to raise the idea as Nolan did).

    All the other complaints -- parking (could be fixed with zoned parking enforcement), park clean-up (most parks I've seen are well kept), and noise (could be addressed through permitting, etc.) fall flat.

    Residents didn't want this park out of fear.

  • Clara

    Jason, how is a resident who has lived in a neighborhood for 21 years a "gentrifier?" Are you even familiar with this neighborhood? It's a very quiet group of single family homes, more than a mile away from the nearest metro stop. There are lots of long-time residents (and, yes, newer residents)and kids who live in this neighborhood because it is a quiet, affordable place to live. The park in question has no parking lot and, short of bulldozing the place to create a parking lot, does not have the ability to handle a lot of cars. I don't live in Langdon Park, but I do live close by in Ward 5. And, yes, there is a sense in our Ward that with the exception of areas like Bloomingdale (where our Council Member lives) and Eckington, the city administration could care less about the residents and see it as a convenient dumping ground (thanks, in part, to zoning issues). As for Mayor Gray's thought process, he did not first come to the neighborhood to discuss the possibility of creating a concert venue; he presented it as a fait accompli. This was poorly handled from the start.

  • Bustin’ Loose

    Chuck Brown was a great musical talent and prolific songwriter for sure. And in that respect we are very proud of him having been born in DC.

    But didn't he leave DC asap and move out to Maryland decades ago? And wasn't he was also a convicted murderer? Kids park in Ward 5 named after a murderer?

    And to quote "Special Assistant" Cherita Whiting in an article about DC Parks and Rec without mentioning her history with the agency and Gray's friends and family corruption problem seems remiss.

    I would agree with Drez about a Chuck Brown Scholarship for aspiring artists, except that Chuck didn't leave any money behind to do so. If people really care about Chuck Brown and want to honor him, maybe they should all chip in and buy him a headstone for his gravesite (in Maryland).

  • Mary

    Someone she think about relocation it to SE on Mississippi Ave and Wheeler Road.

  • Brian Bradford

    Chuck Brown was not born anywhere near DC. If you knew the story of his conviction you wouldn't try to use it as an assassination of his character.

    My parents' home is one block away from Langdon Park. We moved there 34 years ago. Someone who did not grow up in that neighborhood, moved there as an adult and has not contributed anything positive to the community is a gentrifier. Check the petitions and tell me if you see a reflection of this neighborhood or if you see a minority group holding the majority hostage. That amphitheater has been an underused eyesore for three decades. To say there are frequent large weekend events in Langdon Park is a flat out lie. Of course, the city's laws about noise would have been respected. How much noise can you make with a 200-seat amphitheater. The city offered to line the park with trees. Parking has never been a problem and neither has trash. The resistors simply were afraid more African Americans would be in the neighborhood on a few weekends.

  • John

    I don't understand why non-residents (like Jason Cherkis) are so butthurt &whiny about this music venue not going in. If the residents who would have been most affected don't want it, then who are outsiders to judge? If Cherkis is such a go-go fan (an RE reference hardly establishes any credibility), let him and those who agree with him find a suitable location in another neighborhood and get the amphithetaer built.

  • Ward 5 Resident

    "What’s more curious is why Langdon Park was chosen as a location to honor Brown in the first place."

    It is my understanding that Chuck Brown lived around that corner from Langdon Park, can anyone confirm?

  • Ward 5 Resident

    Correction that = the

  • sticktoyourguns

    this shouldn't be that hard many folks loved chuck brown doesn't matter if they ever even saw him play people loved chuck brown.

  • Actually

    The diatribe from Jerkis is tiresome. You want a 900-seat venue so badly? Then ask the city to put it in your neighborhood. Problem solved!

  • gaga

    Cherkis lives in a dream world where District agencies are efficient and effective at doing their jobs. The problems that would come with the amphitheater would escape our less-than-competent agency leaders and fall on the immediate neighbors to shoulder.

  • drez

    I guess I just see the government willing to spend a whole lot of money to build an amphitheater- something they can point to and say "see what I built"- instead of endowing scholarships that would help kids.
    WWCD? (What would Chuck do?) Would he go for flash or for substance?

  • jmb

    Cherkis-I asked this the last time I commented on a similar story and don't think I got a response. Have you ever been to Langdon Park? The surrounding neighborhood?
    Personally, I've no dog in this fight. I'm across the border in MD. I do frequently walk my dogs in and through this neighborhood and park. To me, it never seemed like a good fit for this project. The surrounding area is VERY residential and I don't think the people that live there did so b/c there was a potential music venue nearby. I think they moved there for a slice of the suburbs in the city (not a value statement!)...a little peace and quiet after a hard days work. I never had the feeling that this was a very well thought out proposal, and the execution was quite clearly lacking.

  • Jason Cherkis

    As far as city services go, parks and rec have done a good job. There's no reason to think the agency couldn't keep up a 200-seat facility that would generally only be used six months out of the year.

    Where I live in Ward 4, the parks are well maintained and staffed with helpful people.

  • Jason Cherkis

    JMB: I have been to the neighborhood. But don't see how that park is dissimilar from other parks. I don't understand how the noise issue could not have been worked out.

  • Dave

    "Someone who did not grow up in that neighborhood, moved there as an adult and has not contributed anything positive to the community is a gentrifier."

    I can only assume that by "has not contributed anything positive to the community" you mean "does not have a vision for the neighborhood that aligns with my own."

  • Karla

    I live a block away from the park and yes, there are parking and trash issues in the community. While I agree Chuck Brown was a good musician, I also feel that placing an amphitheater at Langdon Park was NEVER a good idea. As ANC for 5C02, I have three nightclubs, including a strip club, right up the road. If everyone thinks Langdon is such a great place to listen to Go-Go, I am sure they wouldn't mind visiting the music venues such as The Stadium, Echostage or The Scene to hear this great music. I am sure you won't mind the shootings and stabbings, right? If this is happening down the street, why wouldn't it happen in an open amphitheater? Our community has had enough and I am proud our voices were heard. Go-Go at Langdon Park is a No-No!

  • Joan

    Cherkis - I think you're over-blaming Nolan here. Nolan might be the ANC (which is why he gets interviewed for articles like this), but he hardly led the anti-Chuck Brown amphitheater campaign. Rather, he listed to residents - most of whom have lived in DC a long time - and negotiated between them and the city to arrive at a compromise. This nefarious agenda you're assigning the Commish is kinda strange.

    Also, were you AT any of the Chuck Brown Park meetings? The residents there were overwhelmingly in opposition to the original plan. For Nolan not to advocate on their behalf would be a dereliction of duty.

    And finally - this is one Chuck Brown memorial! There can be other ones, louder ones, in other parts of the city. The neighborhood isn't rejecting Chuck Brown so much as honoring his legacy in the way that we see fit.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Joan: You are making great points. I should have attended those Chuck Brown Park meetings. And yes Nolan was sticking up for those that attended those meetings. My question is simple -- why not have stage and compromise on its use. Make sure that its use is diverse. Don't people want arts in their community? Music? Performance spaces?

    Coming up, I only saw neighborhoods as places to see shows. I didn't know Tenleytown. But I knew Fort Reno. I didn't know Dupont Circle but I knew Food for Thought. I didn't know Mount Pleasant unless it was hearing local bands play at a church. D.C.'s music was woven into its geography. Yes, sometimes, the bands were loud. I have no idea of residents complained. All I know is there was always another show.

    Go to the Smithsonian museum in Anacostia. I don't know if they still have the exhibit on go-go. But if they do, watch the old videos and marvel. There's so much cultural and civic pride going on. So many amazing performances.

    Why not create a new music and performance space for a new generation of D.C. residents? If it fails, it fails. I'm disappointed by the Langdon episode because everyone -- the administration and the neighborhood both reached the conclusion that they shouldn't even try.

  • What?

    Brian Bradford, did you actually attend any of the Chuck Brown meetings? Because I did. And those aren't what you term gentrifiers. Those were long term residents!!!

    And even if they only lived there for 10 years...their voice doesn't matter? GTFO.

    You know what would be great Jason Cherkis? For DC to put money into actually making the existing rec center at Langdon something that's modern and wonderful. THAT'S what residents want there.

  • CCDCCCMD

    Same old story. If this park were about adding space for more dogs to socialize then there would be no issue for the "newbie" neighbors. However, the fear that 200 "people" might show for an occasional concert is much too much, for some.

  • Brian Bradford

    Dave,
    I said exactly what I meant. I didn't need you to assume (you know what they say) anything because I was clear.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Reading over the comments, I especially love the idea that someone equates living in a dream world with wanting an outdoor stage w/ wooden benches.

  • Actually

    To summarize Jerkis:

    * Didn't attend any of the multiple community meetings (yet felt competent to criticize the final decisions);
    * Doesn't live anywhere close to the neighborhood, but he's "been to the neighborhood" (so he's got his pulse on what's best for the neighborhood);
    * Listened to music at different venues in the city while growing up (street cred, yo!);
    * Attacks the ANC commissioner who accurately reflected the wishes of his constituents (see point 2 above);
    * Attacks residents of the neighborhood b/c they dared to speak up about a major change in their neighborhood that was being done with minimal input from them (see point 2 above);
    * Likes watching go-go videos at the Anacostia Smithsonian (more street cred!).

    I'm impressed by the cultural imperialism our liberal guilt gentrifier expresses in advocating that the community should just shut up and accept a huge amphitheater b/c it's so retro cool, while being utterly oblivious to the irony. (Dude, let's start up Occupy Langdon Park! That would be so anti-lame awesome!)

    The local neighborhood - those most directly impacted by a 200- or 900-seat theater IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO THEIR HOUSES - spoke. The city - eventually - listened. End of story.

    And that's the last I'll care about this tiresome bore. He's just lame.

  • LOL

    Cherkis loves saying how the city never has money to take care of the homeless population, but then complains when its residents don't want the city to pay for a ampitheater in their neighborhood.

    Amazing

  • Joan

    Actually wins the prize for my favorite comment on this thread. Thanks, Actually.

  • SEis4ME

    And actually, the local residents are a bunch of pansie WHINERS.

    This isn't some local zoning issue. People are well w/in their right to comment on certain amenities that will be used citywide. So whether the local ANC is reflecting the wishes of those near the park makes no difference wrt whether people feel free to give their opinion about decisions that we made.

    And his point about listening to music at a variety of venues actually DOES have merit because I assume it meant he, like many, was willing to TRAVEL outside his n'hood to support the amenities w/in another one. I would be remiss not to mention the "Rare Essence" aspect of his post as I believe THAT is what drives the opposition to it. You people don't see a benefit of a Chuck Brown Memorial period. That's the issue...music notwithstanding.

  • Joan

    I should really stop commenting on this article, because the argument is getting a little silly, but I can't help myself, I guess.

    For the last time: "Gentrifiers" did not lead the fight against the Chuck Brown amphitheater. Long-term residents - who live right next to the park - did (see: 21-year resident Delores Bushong). And the ANC commish for the neighborhood, a Ward 5 resident of seven years, worked with the opponents of the amphitheater and the city to arrive at a Chuck Brown memorial that everyone could agree on.

    And the reason you think this situation is "textbook and cliche," Cherkis, is because you're assigning a textbook and cliched narrative to what is actually a nuanced situation. This wasn't a "gentrifier" vs. "authentic DC" situation; it was a cohesive neighborhood mobilization effort against a government proposal it didn't like.

    And anyway, if you'd been at any of the neighborhood meetings, Cherkis, you'd know the neighbors had some legitimate complaints about the initial plans that the city couldn't address within budget. Namely: without accompanying transportation and noise cancellation infrastructure, and bathrooms, the quiet neighborhood didn't want a giant new concert venue in their park. And anyway, they'd been asking the city for other park upgrades for years (the rec center, the pool, lighting) and hadn't gotten them. And now the city wanted to put in a new amphitheater out of nowhere? Man, folks were pissed.
    Also: there's a perfectly fine 200 person amphitheater in the park already; that's not where the residents wanted an upgrade.

    But now, thanks to a mobilized group of neighbors, the local residents are getting some of what they want from the city, and the city is getting a Chuck Brown memorial. Win-win, I think.

  • NIMBY4Life

    UGH. Chuck Brown was from Maryland, PG County. Go-go may be DC's music, but Chick was not from Ward 5, or DC.
    The idea of an amphitheater in the middle of a quiet neighborhood (with seniors and families who purchased property there because they liked the quiet) is absurd.
    The amphitheater was located across the street from houses, not nestled somewhere in a sprawling park like rock creek. There was no way to shelter those homes from sound.
    Relying on Parks and Rec to manage or maintain anything -permits, landscape maintenance, programs, is crazy. They are horrible.
    Many of the people who opposed the project were African American and middle class. Not all African Americans like go-go (thank God).
    Marion Barry should build an memorial to Chuck Brown in his ward, perhaps across the street from his house, if he thinks it is such a great friggin idea.

  • Tina

    Chuck Brown was great for Go Go and probably deserves a memorial but an amphitheater that would host music concerts in the middle of a residential neighborhood is a ridiculous idea.

    I grew up in a neighborhood where a public safety venue located in the middle of a residential neighborhood hosted a few concerts to raise money. The neighborhood quickly shut that down. There is no good time of day or season to have hundreds of people flowing into your residential neighborhood to hear loud music & bass blaring throughout the community, not to mention the mess & noise that went with that many people entering and leaving your neighborhood.

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