People in the Park: Love, Roots, Routine and The Hot Dog Stand Man
When redevelopment begins in the fall of 2018, “Franklin Park will become the neighborhood’s living room on a daily basis,” according to the D.C. Downtown Business Improvement District’s “Transformation Brochure.” For the people who gather or sleep in there daily, including a man named Robert, the park between 14th, 13th, I and K Streets NW could already be considered that.
On a typical evening, Robert, who declined to provide his last name, can be seen walking through the park, surveying its nearly 5 acres and scanning the occupants of its many benches. He usually spends the afternoon in the park, leaving to pay a visit to “the hot dog stand man” for his free hotdog around 5 p.m. Robert said the man gives the last hot dogs of his shift to homeless people.
“But don’t go telling everyone he does that,” Robert warned, “or it’ll be a bum-fest over there.” To comply with Robert’s request, Street Sense is not providing any specific information about the vendor.
Robert first arrived at Franklin Park decades ago in the late seventies as a curious teenager, bored of his neighborhood in Capitol Heights and eager to meet new people. The blocks that now hold the Washington Post and big corporate banks were once home to nightclubs and adult bookstores.
“It used to be all lit up over there,” Robert said as he pointed in the direction of Buredo, a restaurant where sushi rolls the size of a burrito run for $15. “I used to think I was in Las Vegas.”
As Washington and Robert changed, the park remained a constant in his life. He does not have many living friends from his younger years.
“Most of them passed away from AIDs. Two of them had a heart attack,” Robert said.
After he lost his job with the federal government in the ‘80s, he turned to crack cocaine.
“A girlfriend of mine turned me onto it,” Robert said. “I was always looking at her doing it, so I said ‘let me try it’ so then she gave it to me and my heart was beating real fast. Maybe because my body had never had it before.”
In 1989, Robert became homeless for the first time when his mother told him he could not smoke crack and continue to live in her house. He moved to the CCNV shelter, which he would revisit several more times during his life.
Robert stopped using cocaine in 1990 when he was jailed for a crime he describes only as “violent,” but specified that it was not a drug charge. He would later serve two more jail sentences on violent charges and spend a total of twenty years of his life behind bars. His last sentence ended in 2015.
“My oldest nephew said one thing. He said he thinks that twenty years saved my life,” Robert said, “Because he said if I never did no time at all, anything could have happened to me. I could have caught AIDs. I could have worked myself to death. Could have drunk myself to death. I was drinking real heavy back then. Somebody could have robbed me. Killed me. I thought about that and now I believe that.”
Robert smiled, showing off his teeth, all intact and bright white. He said he watched many of his friends lose their teeth to crack or declining health.
During weekday lunch hours, food trucks park along Franklin Park’s border, drawing local business people to the park to eat lunch. On evenings and weekends, outreach and church groups visit the park to give bagged lunches and toiletries to homeless people.
Franklin Park’s fountain is empty, sometimes filled with trash. The grass is patchy and uneven. The sidewalks cracked and studded with potholes.
“The park is in disrepair and lacks amenities that a growing commercial and residential area demands,” the Downtown BID states on its website, “Currently the park does not meet today’s diverse urban needs; however, the park has the potential to be transformed into a premier urban park based on lessons learned from national models, including Madison and Union Square parks in New York City.”
In a statement to Street Sense, Rachel Hartman, a Downtown BID spokesperson, said BID employees visited over twenty parks throughout the country as part of the redevelopment planning process.
Robert can’t think of many changes he’d make to the park. He enjoys his afternoons sitting in the shade of the park’s numerous trees and was disappointed to hear many of them would be removed when redevelopment begins. The BID plans to remove 27 of the park’s trees, including 7 historic trees that were planted prior to 1936. The trees will be replaced with 40 young trees.
“I do wish the water was on,” Robert said, pointing to the fountain. “When I left in 2010 [for prison], that’s the last time I saw it on.”
The Downtown BID intends to turn the fountain back on. Additionally, plans call for a children’s playground, movie nights in the park and the construction of a cafe and bathroom on site.
As Robert read through the Downtown BID’s vision for the park, he was glad to see the fountain would be restored. But then he paused.
“A playground? Here? For what kids?”
“A cafe? I don’t even know what a cafe is. It sounds expensive.”
Robert continued to scan the plan, asking who the people in the BID’s illustrations were. He didn’t see people like him reflected there.
“They might get rid of the homeless people,” he mused.
A Downtown BID ambassador weaved a thick black cord through each table. He turned the chairs out so they don’t face the table, which make it difficult to sit and eat. People moved away from the tables, taking their places on benches around the park.
“We tie these up because we don’t want homeless people moving them and sleeping under them when it rains,” the ambassador said, “We don’t want it becoming a problem.”
Robert had caught his 6 p.m. bus back to the shelter, but the park was still full of people who are there each day, many of whom are homeless and sleep in the park. The Downtown BID ambassador left two chairs unlocked for Street Sense reporters, but locked every other chair and table.
“Our ambassadors manage cleaning the tables and chairs, deciding whether to put them out for the day in inclement weather, rearranging them etc,” Hartman said. “And they are tied up at night to prevent them from going missing or being damaged when there are no ambassadors on duty checking the park.”
Hartman denied that the Downtown BID does not tie up the chairs to prevent people from sleeping under them.
The Downtown BID plans to add 24-hour security in Franklin Park when it is redeveloped, which would amount to 31 percent of the estimated $1.7 million annual budget.
“They got that now,” Robert said when he read about the new security, “Don’t you see all the police around here now?”
During July through August, Street Sense reporters observed a MPD officer patrolling the park’s sidewalks on a motorcycle, three law enforcement officers in plain clothing moving through the park, as well as one arrest. Police cars frequently park across the street from Franklin Park.
Robert’s sister offered to let him live in her home outside D.C, but he said she imposes “too many rules.” Despite the uncertainty in his life, Robert finds peace in the park by remembering his days there from years ago, particularly his romantic relationships.
Some were brief and fleeting and another lasted eight years. One of his girlfriends began getting sick several months into their relationship, only to reveal to him that she had contracted AIDS. She died soon after. Robert met another girlfriend in Franklin Park when she offered sex in exchange for money. He declined her offer but eventually convinced her to date him. When he could no longer fund her expensive crack cocaine addiction, she returned to prostitution and Robert ended the relationship.
And then there was Dana.
They met in the park where their names are still written in Sharpie on a tree close to K Street: “Dana + Robert Forever.”
“I wrote that on the tree while she was sleeping on that bench,” Robert said, gesturing to the bench directly in front of the tree.
Forever would be cut short. When Dana found out she was pregnant, she returned to Las Vegas to live with her mother.
“We were homeless,” he said, “I couldn’t take care of her.” Robert writes her letters, enclosing his phone number in each one, but she never calls and only sometimes writes back.
He hasn’t met his daughter. Still, he returns to the park, sometimes to the tree, a point of consistency in his world.
This profile is part of an occasional series featuring the people that would be displaced from Franklin Park when its intended redevelopment begins in Fall 2018.