Walter C. Pierce Park – By the Community, For the Community by John

Walter Pierce

Walter Pierce Park, located between Adams Mill Road and Calvert Street is a beautiful neighborhood resource, providing the local community with a dog park, soccer field, basketball court, children’s play area, tables with seating and grassy spaces for relaxing.

One important feature of Walter Pierce distinguishes it from many other city parks: while control ultimately lies with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DCDPR) the park is managed by the “Friends of Walter Pierce Park”, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing and developing the park through advocacy, park maintenance, and special projects.

Friends of Walter Pierce Park, President M. Mindy Moretti took some time to discuss the park, the work of the “Friends” and her vision for the future of the park.  Story continues after the jump.

Friends of Walter Pierce Park

The “Friends” was established in 2000 in order to remake what was an underutilized and sometimes unsafe park into a meaningful community resource.

Residents raised money to build the children’s play area and some strange picnic-tables-with-canopies were removed.

Historic Burial Ground

Throughout the 19th Century, Walter Pierce Park was the site of two cemeteries: Washington’s first Quaker burial ground, and a much larger African-American cemetery.

In 1807 Jonathan Shoemaker, who owned the land and operated a mill along Rock Creek, donated about an acre of his property to the Religious Society of Friends, (Quakers) for a burial ground. The location of this cemetery was at the east end of the ball field.

From 1823 to 1870, President John Quincy Adams and his heirs owned the land that makes up the park and sold six acres of it to the Colored Union Benevolent Association for an African American cemetery. It operated from 1870 to 1890. Recent research into the cemetery has revealed that at least 7,000 burials occurred during that 20-year period, throughout the park and down the hillside to Rock Creek.

Some disinterment took place in the 1940s, but the continued discovery of remains prevented builders from developing the land. The presence of the historic cemeteries helped preserve the land that today is
Walter Pierce Park.

Dog Park

The Dog Park

Walter Pierce contains (probably) the only dedicated, fenced dog park in DC. The actual, legal status of the dog park is ambiguous, but it’s fairly clear that this space is perfect for Walter Pierce – with sports and children’s play areas coexisting nicely with the needs of neighborhood dogs.

In 2002, the Friends approached the DC Department of Parks and Recreation with a proposal to create a dog park in a section of the park that was considered the domain of those who prefer to consume their refreshments from containers clad in brown paper bags.

(The Friends wanted to emphasize that usable, green space was not sacrificed for the dog park.)

While the dog park has been sanctioned by the City, it still exists in a quasi-unofficial state – there remain disputes over who is responsible for maintaining the fence, for example. However, the Friends are in ongoing negotiations with the City to make the dog-park official and continue to make improvements: a new fence is high on the list of priorities.

The dog park is considered a success and has generally reduced uncomfortable interactions between non-dog users of the park – and dogs and their owners.


The Soccer Field

I use the word “field” in its broadest possible sense. In my mind, a “field” should display a least a hint of grass. This is perhaps more of a “soccer desert,” or even an attempt to recreate the beach soccer of the Copacabana in Rio right here in NW DC.

Sadly, the “field” is in terrible shape, mostly due to bureaucratic incompetence. Back in 2004, DCDPR paid to have the field renewed and re-turfed. Problems with the contractor and with the irrigation system resulted in the mess we see today.

It seems that the irrigation system only had two settings – “on” or “off” – the field became soaked and sprinklers were running during rain storms etc.

When the Friends raised this issue with DCDPR, the response was simply to turn the system off, resulting in a dust bowl that could inspire John Steinbeck to words.

Use of the soccer field has also been under scrutiny. Currently, adult softball is banned from the field due to errant balls hitting cars on Calvert Street.

Kickballers were warned about their behavior in the park (public drinking, foul and abusive language in the presence of children). More recently however, the kickball leagues that use the park have worked to improve their image and address some of these issues. Kickball in the park during the spring went smoothly, although no kickball sightings have been reported so far this fall. Kickballers were also said to be enthusiastic participants in recent community efforts to clean up and maintain the park.

The future of the field remains undecided. The City will only resurface the field on the condition they erect a six foot, locked fence around it, potentially meaning access to the field would require booking, in advance, through the official channels.

With no permanent DCDPR staff onsite, soccer or kickball leagues would rely on the DC DPR to arrive on time to unlock the gate and grant access to the field. This is obviously a less than desirable situation.

Plus, it would really limit potential for pick-up games, forcing soccer players to scale a fence and technically “break the rules” just to get a game.

There are also concerns about how the proposed fence would affect safety in the park – especially at night. With a fence around the dog park on one side around the field on the other, those walking their dogs or strolling through the park would literally be fenced in on the path – potentially a vulnerable situation.

The Friends remain hopeful that because the current situation was caused, at least in part, by problems with city contractors and their irrigation system, the city should agree to resurface the field without fencing it off.

No Gardening

Community Garden

For a number of years, Walter Pierce contained a community garden where local residents could exercise their gardening skills and grow flowers, produce etc. However, soil erosion revealed to gardeners bones and fragments of coffins from the sites previous use as a burial ground.

The DC DPR suspended gardening from this area and commissioned an archaeological survey of the park. The first part of the study involves a walk-over survey of the park. This is a non-invasive way to quickly determine the amount and location of archaeological and/or skeletal evidence at the surface by creating 10 meter by 10 meter grids in the park which a student team will analyse – measuring, photographing, describing and mapping everything they see on the surface.

Ground penetrating radar will also be used to learn more, in a non-invasive manner, about this sensitive and historic site.

Suspending the gardening was clearly the appropriate thing to do, but community gardens in general are an amazing neighborhood resource. This particular community garden was run on a fairly ad hoc basis – a local volunteer would basically assign plots to those gardeners who applied. Some got really ambitious – reports of some serious farming going on.

The future of the site is still to be determined, but proposals include a garden or memorial to commemorate the site’s history. Ideas from the community as to how to use this site in an appropriate manner are welcomed.

Future of Walter Pierce Park

The park we currently enjoy to be a vast improvement on what was there some years ago. The main mid-term goals of the Friends are to secure official approval and recognition for the dog park – which would allow the DC DPR to build a new fence, resurface the ground in the dog park and provide a water source.

In addition, Friends hope to see a reasonable compromise on the issue of the soccer field which would see the field resurfaced and appropriately maintained without sacrificing access and aesthetics in the form of a great big, locked fence.

For more information, visit the Friends of Walter Pierce Park:

Thanks again to Mindy Moretti for taking the time to share some of the history of this wonderful park.

16 Comment

  • why on earth would they need to put up a six foot fence? Also why not resurface the actual feild with Artificial Turf. The stuff they have today looks just like real grass. it is used all over nyc. not sure why dc hasnt caught on. Its great of schools too. The real reason the grass doesnt grow is because it gets a shit ton of use. why waste water. put down some turf for the field with a low fence so the balls dont fly into the walking path. Then have real grass on the perimeter.

  • Anon- DC has caught on. They’re installing it on school fields all around the city. It’s just a question of funding. Turf is pretty expensive to install, although it’s a good investment for the reasons you mentioned.

    Great article re: Walter Pierce Park! I love this park. It’s a great community resource.

    Now what’s the deal with Marie Reed, PoP? It needs help

  • both Anon and SG: in Northeast right after the city installed new astroturf and playground equipment at the cost of quite a bit of money someone, reported the drug dealer who had been ousted, set it on fire with gasoline. That answers your question why it’s a bad idea- rampant vandalism.

    While Pierce is nice, I’ve also seen creeps and perverts there as well.

  • Nice post! I want to check out that dog park 🙂

  • Neener. this isn’t the first time your logic has bewildered me. Just because someone somewhere vandalized some astroturf it hardly means its a bad idea… not to mention this isn’t NE.

  • Washington is a lawless city. Walter Pierce Park often has drunken undesirables hanging about, up to no good. An investment in FieldTurf would absolutely invite vandalism by any of the number of people hanging there, away from the traffic of Calvert.

  • Anonymous- are you being serious? That logic bewilders you? The weirdo adults cannot, right now, vandalize grass and dirt, but they will, absolutely and without question vandalize astroturf. I saw the baby playground all tagged up once about 5 years ago.

  • Neener, no offense. but i think you just might be a “weirdo adult”.

  • @CP – if you want to be taken seriously, don’t start your comment with a ridiculous statement such as “Washington is a lawless city.”

    That park is perfectly safe. 5 years ago is 5 years ago.

  • Go down there, at any time, and show me a park devoid of degenerates with open containers.

  • Prince Of Petworth

    I was actually just down there last saturday, and I swear the truth, the park was devoid of degenerates with open containers. There were lots of kids and volunteers doing clean up work though…

  • could there be some tennis courts built in the park? There’s tons of land that could be built up with a retention wall on the far side of the park. I really hope someday that area could be better utilized.

  • I go there often to use the dog park area and I’ve never seen any lawless/degenerate folk. Granted, I’ve never been late at night, but I have been in the evenings/twilight hours, and I feel perfectly safe going there alone.

  • Nothing about the basketball court? Or the really cool mural that decorates it?

  • I just went by the park today and saw the fence was down around the dog park. Are they putting in a new one or is the dog park being shut down?

  • Prince Of Petworth

    (Washington, DC) — The DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) announced today that they will be making improvements to the dog exercise area at Walter Pierce Park, located at Adams Mill & Ontario Roads, NW.

    Weather permitting, the dog exercise area is scheduled to close and work begin on January 22, 2009. Once underway, work is expected to last approximately three weeks. The rest of Walter Pierce Park will remain open.

    Improvements to the dog exercise area include the installation of new five-foot high perimeter fencing with a double gate, and installation of a new dog exercise surface, which will be 6 inches of compacted stone.

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