What Went Wrong With the Planned Chuck Brown Memorial?
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.
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.
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.
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