City offers lesser-known open spaces to escape bustle

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A peaceful open green space sits within Sherman Circle NW in Petworth. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Amid the bustle of the city, the District’s wealth of parks and trails could easily go unnoticed and become neglected. However, in recent years the city has seen a wave of activism around park conservation, with locals organizing “friends groups” and restoring unkempt green spaces, many with historic significance.

Steve Saari of the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment has devoted his career to caring for District parks, and he has several pages of notes on his favorites, which span the entire city.

“Sorry, I have a long list,” he told The Current. “Just tell me when to stop.”

First up, the Columbia Heights Green — located at 3321 11th St. NW — is a small parcel of land supported by the nonprofit Washington Parks & People. The group hosts activities on the green for the community, such as movie nights and live music, and a portion is set aside for residents to cultivate gardens.

Community events at Fort Stevens frequently feature historical reenactments. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Saari also pointed to Fort Stevens Park at 1339 Fort Stevens Drive NW as a historic relic and a peaceful respite from the bustle of D.C life. Fort Stevens was the site of a two-day Civil War battle — the only time the war directly touched District soil. Confederate Gen. Jubal Early led the attack where President Abraham Lincoln came under fire on July 12, 1864, less than a year before he was assassinated.

Similarly, President Lincoln’s Cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home is a monument to history that also serves as a retreat for residents. The cottage, which sits some three miles from the White House, was a retreat that allowed Lincoln to escape from the heat and the pressures of the war for three summers, and it also served as the summer White House for two subsequent presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur. The National Trust for Historic Preservation opened the cottage for public use for the first time in 2008, allowing residents to escape the heat and enjoy the sweeping lawns as the president once did. 

Some of the local parkland is more visible than spots like Lincoln’s Cottage — though it often goes unnoticed by the residents who see it every day. This includes the National Park Service properties found inside many D.C. traffic circles. Saari singled out Sherman and Grant circles in the Petworth area as particularly appealing for recreation, due to their large size and wealth of benches and greenery. “These two circles are so big that once you’re inside them they feel like a real park and you don’t notice,” he said.

A Memorial Day event offered access to the grounds of President Lincoln’s Cottage. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2016)

Residents even host a “Sherman Circle Social” each month, encouraging residents to meet and foster a sense of community.

Anna Cooper Circle is another favorite roundabout of Saari’s. The tiny traffic circle is located at the intersection of 3rd and T streets NW, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood. The circle’s namesake, Anna Cooper, was a women’s and civil rights activist, writer, teacher and principal who served as the city’s first black assistant superintendent of schools. Cooper lived in LeDroit Park until her death at age 105 in 1964.

Meanwhile, Crispus Attucks Park at 23 U St. NW is prized for its seclusion. The 1-acre park’s neat appearance, complete with flower beds and leafy trees, is the product of a determined community group, the Crispus Attucks Development Corp. The park itself was named after Attucks, an African-American freed slave who became the first victim of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Last month, the nonprofit hosted “Bloomie Nights,” with movies and music.

Another of Saari’s favorite city respites is Spring Valley Park. Nestled between 49th Street, Quebec Street, Fordham Road and Hillbrook Lane NW, the park is slated for revitalization in the coming year to address erosion caused by stormwater runoff.

Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in the District, Saari said, is Georgetown’s Volta Park. The park, located at Volta and 34th streets NW, dates back to 1769. Originally a cemetery, it held 3,000 people including soldiers from the Revolutionary War. John F. Kennedy played football there with his brothers. The park’s pool and recreation center were renovated and reopened in 2005, and they are supported by a friends group launched in 1995.

“There’s an outdoor pool [and] so many little nooks to read a book,” Saari said. “But not many people know about it.”