All the right people describe Washington Park as a place off limits to decent folks. To hear consultants and civic improvement types tell it, the park is a campground for Cincinnati's indigents, vagrants and undesirables.
Set across the street from the Drop Inn Center, Washington Park is beset by drug dealing and public urination. Set across from Memorial Hall and Music Hall, the park is a long-neglected remnant of a once vibrant downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Set adjacent to Washington Park Elementary, the park illustrates some of the key issues facing Cincinnati: tension between "urbanists" and advocates for the poor, between inner-city crime and suburban discomfort.
You can hear developers and arts boosters licking their chops at the prospect of reclaiming Washington Park. Imagine if the "bad element" were chased out and the park made safe for champagne picnics at midnight after the symphony.
But there's another side to Washington Park -- the inside. The consultant who got so much attention in the media for decrying the sorry state of the park didn't even bother to get out of his car; his conclusions were based at least in part on surveillance from the comfort of a nearby parking spot, according to a June 23 story in The Cincinnati Post.
To know Washington Park, you must go inside. What you'll find is a family, a community of people for whom the park is a place to gather, to relax, to commiserate.
For outsiders with dreams of rehabbed inner-city lofts dancing in their blue-eyed heads, the people who frequent the park might be scary -- or in the way. But to the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood, this is refuge. This is part of home.
'The spirituality of the park'
Bordered by Race, Elm and 12th streets and the grade school, Washington Park has an intriguing past, a humbling present and an uncertain future. According to The Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati: A Portrait of 200 years, the park began as a burial ground for several small German churches of the Episcopal and Presbyterian faiths. Health problems in Over-the-Rhine were sometimes attributed to what was believed to be "a miasma of vapors" emitted by the corpses, the book says.
In 1855, the city purchased from the Presbyterian Society the first parcel of land for what is now Washington Park. The remaining land was purchased five years later. All bodies from the burial ground were re-interred in Spring Grove Cemetery.
The park -- apparently named for George Washington -- opened in 1861 as a Sunday social spot and a venue for German musical and gymnastic events. One hundred forty years later, it serves as the headquarters for a community that survives by its own terms while showing that struggle has no color.
Moses and Elizabeth, who asked not to give their last names, are regular visitors. Moses, 39 and African-American, has been going to Washington Park for 10 years but didn't start by choice -- the decision to go there was sudden.
"I was kicked out of the house," he says.
Moses met Elizabeth, a 26-year-old Caucasian, on 13th Street. When they became a couple, they encountered lots of comments about their partnership.
"It was racial when we first started: 'Why you with that white bitch?' " Elizabeth says.
Some of the commentary came from law enforcement.
"When we first got together, there was a white female cop that said that this (Washington Park) was not the place for me to be," Elizabeth says.
Why then do they return to the park?
"When I was in need, the people here was there for me," Moses says. "And for the beer."
Melissa Horton, another park regular, is a native of Cynthiana, Ky., who came to Cincinnati in 1964.
"I first came to Washington Park with my father when he got off work," she says. "I remember a time when blacks were not allowed in the park. You better be in a car or with a group."
But memories of exclusion don't keep Horton from returning.
"I love the spirituality of the park," she says. "Different groups come to feed the people and spread the word -- the carnivals, anything bringing the people together. Now you don't see that too often. Whenever someone tries to do something positive, they try to tear it down."
Washington Park is important for people who choose not to seek the aid of organizations that house the homeless, according to Horton.
"Some people rather sleep in this park than to go through dealing with the lack of respect shown in some facilities -- the diseases, fighting and theft," she says.
Horton is a recovering alcoholic of 20 years and a recovering drug addict of 10 years. Amidst the temptation to go back to her old way of living, she makes one call -- to God.
"You got to call his name and be strong," Horton says. "People think it's a hard project. It is between you and your god to get you out of these situations. It's up to you to pick it up, and it's up to you to put it down."
Angel Booker greets familiar faces by saying, "Hi, baby" as she sits on a bench in her jeans and gym shoes or in a skirt with a seductive split that, matched with a fisherman hat, gives her an air of mystique. She's smoking a Newport King. Some call her the mother of Washington Park because of her generosity and her efforts to keep peace there.
"We used to section off the park like a house -- the living room, the dining room and the den," she says. "I spent most of my time in the foyer."
Washington Park is what you make of it, according to Booker, who's visited for the past 10 years.
"If you hang around negative people, expect negativity around you," she says.
Booker talks about the way the family of Washington Park celebrated the passing of one of its own, Pretty Wayne.
"The park collected funds for his funeral," she says. "We did what we could."
After Pretty Wayne's funeral, Washington Park served as the homecoming spot, replete with the smell of barbecue, paper bags camouflaging liquid refreshments and the sound of music.
'Turning up their noses at us'
The park's rest room has a 3 p.m. curfew. After that, some men seek relief at the nearest oak, elm or maple on the grounds. Gerald Checco, superintendent of Park Operations for the Cincinnati Park Board, says he hopes the early closing time will change in the future.
"The rest rooms close at that time because our staff is finished working," Checco says. "We're talking to people at the Drop Inn Center and other organizations about having a key so the rest rooms can stay open later."
Why lock the rest rooms at all?
"Ninety percent of the time, we have seen that when the rest rooms are left open overnight they're vandalized or drug dealing takes place," Checco says. "They can be quite dangerous at night."
Even the animals at Washington Park seem to have an attitude. Pigeons fly through the air with razor sharp precision, narrowly missing the ears of their human neighbors. Maybe it's built into their genetic code -- in October 1959 The Post reported three young boys were arrested for injuring squirrels in the park.
This summer, Victoria Satterwhite, 19, and Cali-f Thompson, 23, are marking the first anniversary of a friendship that developed in the park.
"I was walking through when I met Ms. Angel," Thompson says. "Then I met Victoria."
Satterwhite's first experience of Washington Park was during a Fourth of July celebration.
"The family gathered down here," she says. "We barbecued and watched the fireworks. I come because my mother is down here."
Thompson and Satterwhite could go anywhere else in the city but choose Washington Park.
"I come solely because of my family and friends," Satterwhite says.
Thompson's heart goes out to those who indulge in too much alcohol.
"I hate to see people sleeping in the park instead of going to the Drop Inn Center," he says. "I hate to see people getting drunk and passing out. They come back and do it all over again."
The squirrels sometimes join in the festivities as well, according to Satterwhite.
"We all sat and watched a squirrel drink Wild Irish Rose and gin from a cup," she says. "When it finished, it passed out. We all fell out."
In recent years, the community at Washington Park has grown to include Latin Americans. Julio, a native of Miami, says he and his friends get along with everyone in the park, blacks and whites alike. Language can be a barrier, but everyone understands respect and friendship, Julio says.
Well, not quite everyone, according to Alicia White, who has frequented the park for nine years.
"When Music Hall has an event, you see women clutching their purses, holding on tight to their husbands, turning up their noses at us," White says. "Everybody in this park is not a crack-head or an alcoholic."
The power of the sense of community at Washington Park becomes clear when one of its members falls ill. Dy'Zaire, 25, who asked to withhold his last name, has been a part of this community for seven years.
"I was casually walking through and decided to sit down," he says. "I saw some people I knew and we chipped in on a 40 (ounce). Just look at some of the people that walk through here."
Dy'Zaire has lived with HIV/AIDS for two years. He talks about his strained relationship with his family, who can't come to terms with the disease.
"They have to deal with it," Dy'Zaire says, "just like I do."
The economics of the disease are startling. Dy'Zaire has four prescriptions that total $783 a month.
"Shit happens," he says. "It's not like I asked for it. I got to face the consequences."
Zola Boggs and Dy'Zaire have been friends since their days at Washburn Elementary School. On several occasions over the years, Boggs has opened her home -- as well as her heart -- to Dy'Zaire.
'When it comes to the kids'
When Friday rolls around, the gazebo serves as a dance floor as visitors play music, eat and drink. Anjul Harrison describes her unwilling introduction to Washington Park.
"I was hungry and homeless," she says. "I escaped from a group home in Columbus."
For money, Harrison ran errands for people and sold her own wares: sunglasses, doorknocker earrings and T-shirts. "Sexy" was her stage name during her four years as an exotic dancer.
"It was an escape from things I didn't have at home," she says. "It's a part of life that I wanted to try."
Harrison says her affection for Washington Park is long-term.
"I won't go a day without coming down here," she says. "I like the park as it is."
Families also call Washington Park home. Harrison talks about a woman and four children -- one of them 6 months old -- who have stayed at the park for the past three weeks. Whatever is said about the park, people there pull together for the children, Harrison says.
"Some of us drink, smoke, talk shit or whatever, but when it comes to the kids I bet you see the crack-heads around here put their pipes down," she says. "We all come together. Those going to buy a beer will hand over the money for the kids. We don't play that."
The people of Washington Park reached out to this luckless family. Elizabeth offered to open her home for the children and donated diapers and clothing. Boggs allowed the children to stay at her home. A friend of Harrison's, who asked to remain anonymous, took the children to his home for clean clothes and a bath.
Donald Moore, who partners with Harrison during intense games of spades, gave the family blankets and personal care items.
"People can't go through life thinking they're 'all that' and don't think they'll need someone," he says. "You can always be brought down. These kids didn't ask to come here. I would have given them my bed if they needed it."
'The park got together'
Little of Washington Park's past remains. In 1889 a Times-Star reporter followed landscaper Herman Haerlin around the park during its renovation. Haerlin said a fountain near the corner of Race and 12th streets would be the park's centerpiece. It's now filled with gravel.
The Cincinnati Historical Society salvaged a Civil War cannon facing Elm Street. Two marble busts of notable men in Over-the-Rhine during the 1800s serve as guards. One statue is of Robert McCook, commander of the all-German Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He's noted for giving the area the name "Over-the-Rhine." Adjacent is the bust of Friedrich Hecker, a brigadier general who sought political asylum in the United States.
In 1947, a frequent chess player in Washington Park, Louis G. Blair, went to the park board asking for new tables so he and his friends could play their games. The park board approved two new tables for their gaming pleasure.
Now improvements to Washington Park are again in the works, according to Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning and design for the Cincinnati Park Board. Within two to three years, depending on funding, the park will have improved walkways, benches and game tables, he says. Plans call for restoration of the decorative iron fence that outlines the park as well as restoration of some of the pillars at the park's entry ways.
"In restoring parks, we want to respect their historic character," Schuckman says. "We will return some parts of the park back to its natural character."
The improvements won't interfere with the community that gathers at Washington Park, he says.
In May, a story in The Post began by saying drug dealers and other criminals have staked their claim to this park. The story quoted Marge Hammelrath, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, saying improved lighting in Washington Park will "make people feel more comfortable, and it will set a standard that we want this park to be considered one of the best places around."
Tyrone Ziegler, a rather gaunt gentleman, says he's always felt at home in Washington Park.
"I come as early as 6:30 in the morning," he says. "I change my times periodically. When I come that early, it's peaceful and quiet."
In early mornings, Washington Park is a place of tranquility. Morning dew dampens the feet as Ziegler and his associates take in the scenery, streams of cigarette smoke emanating from their mouths. As the day progresses, others fill the park and the love/hate relationship starts all over.
"Come in, sit down and enjoy yourself," Ziegler says.
Hank Booker is begging for mercy as another member of the community, Tasha, who withholds her last name, braids his hair.
Booker, an African American, grew up in the West End and Mount Auburn. He and Amanda Sweets, a Caucasian and a native of Kentucky, have been together for two years. Booker first came to Washington Park as a child with his mother and brother.
During the late 1960s, the 1132 Bar, on the corner of Race and 12th streets, didn't allow African-Americans to sit at the counter.
"Mama would order her food and come back to the park," Booker says, while showing signs that a headache is imminent due to Tasha's braiding savvy.
In Cincinnati, Booker and Sweets have experienced the same insults as Moses and Elizabeth about their interracial relationship.
"You get scrutinized by both races," Booker says.
But elsewhere attitudes are different.
"In Lexington, they either liked you or they don't," he says. "People there were willing to help you regardless. Cincinnati has always been slow to change. That good ol' boy mentality -- can't let it go."
Sweets remembers a time when the Washington Park community came together on her behalf even though she was new.
"It was my birthday and my mom had died one year prior," she says. "The park got together to celebrate my birthday."
Booker remembers a day when Washington Park served as a backdrop for a personal miracle.
"Me and my friends had no money and we couldn't get work through the temp agencies," he says. "So we got our hustle on. One day this truck pulls up into the park and an older white man and woman asked if we wanted to make some money by unloading the truck.
"We had been broke for days. After we finished, we thought that we would get $20-$25 apiece. Everyone got a crisp $100 bill. One of the guys that were with us that day still has a job with these same people. Everybody has struggled or is struggling. That's what makes us bond."
Booker says race has never been an issue for him.
"My first real friend was a guy named Shelby," he says. "We used to listen to The Beatles on WSAI. Some white guys, I'd go to hell for. Some of the ones I fought, we are friends now. That was how the country was then."
Sweets' father disapproved of racial mixing, but Booker won him over.
"Hank makes me happy and all (my father) wanted was to see me happy," Sweets says.
Therein lies the heart of Washington Park, the community that some overlook when they assess the park's present and plan for its future. For many in Over-the-Rhine, this isn't so much a place as it is a family.
"Our families are intertwined," Booker says. "Some by marriage, some by blood, but mostly from the heart." ©