An Administrative History-The Urban Challenge

The Urban Challenge

Until the 1933 reorganization the National Park Service managed mostly western wilderness. City parks--even large natural city parks--were alien to its agenda. Although Horace Albright and his successors appreciated the visibility and political value their bureau derived from administering the National Capital Parks, many if not most of their staff did not regard this urban inheritance as "real Park Service." A dichotomy between the National Park Service and the National Capital Parks persists to the present in the minds of many Service traditionalists.

Rock Creek Park was more like the Service's traditional areas than were other elements of National Capital Parks. This resemblance did not shield it from internal criticism, however. In June 1934 Malcolm Kirkpatrick, a landscape architect in the Service's Branch of Plans and Design, prepared a 16-page report titled "What Is Wrong With Rock Creek Park." He termed his critique a supplement to the Olmsted Report of 1918.

Kirkpatrick complained of the park's deteriorated woodlands from unchecked weed and seedling growth and a failure to remove dead timber (revealing a management orientation not shared by all). He noted the erratic flow of the creek from its use as a storm sewer, causing under-cutting of banks and deposition of sand and silt. "The automobile can be designated as one of the greatest detriments to the enjoyment of Rock Creek Park today; that is, Rock Creek Park as it is equipped to handle the burden of traffic upon it," he wrote; to alleviate the situation he suggested augmenting the creek fords with bridges. [4]

Kirkpatrick was offended by the aesthetics of previous park development. The rustic signs were "'rustic' in the worst sense of that word which implies apparently that to conform to natural surroundings, objects of wood must ape the growing tree. This is an absurd notion that yields absurd results." Toilet buildings and shelters were "drab and uninteresting." Existing road bridges represented "a fairly thorough cross-section of bad architectural and structural design."

"Thus to the National Park Service has come a heritage wealthy only in its possibilities...," he concluded. "Once a program is formulated, a rigid system of control must be inaugurated so that every step taken shall be in the direction of the established objective and within the bounds of good taste and common sense. No more of this haphazard freedom for subordinate field foremen." [5]

Dr. E. P. Meinecke, a natural scientist on the Service staff, recorded his views on Rock Creek Park at the same time:

The strongest impression I get is that of disappointment. I have every reason to expect, in a large city, the capital of the Nation, a Park representing that which is best in American landscape art, designed to serve a large and growing number of its inhabitants as a place of recreation and refuge from the turmoil and heat of the city. I find instead a curious mixture of more or less futile attempts at landscaping and of wild or rather unkempt growth, haphazardly developed, of amateurish attempts at embellishment side by side with crudest neglect. [6]

Meinecke found too much cleaning of the forest floor in heavily used areas, tending to soil erosion. Like Kirkpatrick, he commented on the scouring and undercutting of the creek banks from unregulated stream flow. "There is at present, little pleasure to be gained from visiting the creek itself," he wrote. "The water is dirty and the smell of decaying filth is anything but agreeable." He attributed much of this problem to an inadequate storm sewer gate in Piney Branch, which in heavy rain let raw sewage into the stream. [7]

The primary feature of Rock Creek Park--the creek itself--had been sullied for some time by its urban and suburban surroundings. In 1922 designated children's bathing places were identified as subject to very high fecal contamination, traced to sewage from Bethesda and Kensington, Maryland. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission could not correct the problem until the District of Columbia completed its interceptor sewer, to which the suburban sewerage would connect. The Army Medical Corps operated clorination plants above the bathing areas, but their efficacy in the running stream could not be assured. Bathing had to be suspended. [8]

As related in the last chapter, the volume of stream flow had also become a matter of increasing concern in the 1920s. In his capacity as executive secretary of the National Capital Park Commission, U. S. Grant III asked the U.S. Geological Survey in 1926 to monitor the flow in the Rock Creek basin. Funds were not immediately available to establish gauging stations, but A. H. Horton of the Survey arranged for the monitoring beginning in 1929. "The flowing water in Rock Creek is one of the chief attractions of the park," he wrote Grant. "[I]f the developments in the basin of the creek are affecting the amount of water in the creek I believe it would be desirable to obtain data which will indicate how serious the situation is and whether the effect on the flow of the creek is increasing year by year." Two years later the National Capital Park and Planning Commission considered a proposal to raise the Potomac River dam above Great Falls so that the impounded water could be gravity-fed to the Rock Creek valley through a conduit to augment the creek flow during dry periods. Grant determined that the scheme would be very costly, and it was not pursued. [9]

Government facilities were among the sources of creek pollution in the early 1930s. The Walter Reed Army Hospital on upper 16th Street discharged sewage into Rock Creek, and the National Bureau of Standards on Connecticut Avenue disposed of large quantities of chemicals in the tributary running past its property. In 1934 the National Park Service received a $25,000 allotment from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works to study and plan for the elimination of pollution in Rock Creek and its tributaries. The resulting report declared the major problem to be the combined sanitary and storm sewers serving some 160,000 people in the District portion of the watershed: the intercepting sewers became overcharged during rains and spilled their contents into the creek. Separate systems would be needed--and they would be costly. [10]

The situation had not greatly improved by 1954, when an article titled "Our Capital's Rock Creek Mess" appeared in American Forests. "It is hard to believe that the foul-smelling, mud-laden, debris-choked water-course which winds its sickly way from Montgomery County, Maryland, through the nation's capital can be the same stream which Major Michler described...some 90 years ago," wrote its author, Bernard Frank of the U.S. Forest Service. Frank deplored the overdevelopment of the watershed with inadequate storm water and sewage controls and called for strict measures to prevent erosion during land development. [11]

In 1967 an Interior Department publication, The Creek and the City: Urban Pressures on a Natural Stream; Rock Creek Park and Metropolitan Washington, was able to report some progress. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration had conducted detailed studies to monitor water quality in the creek. Two dams had recently been built upstream in Montgomery County under the Soil Conservation Service; Lakes Needwood and Frank (for the deceased Bernard Frank) behind them would collect silt and curb flood damage downstream during their expected 50-year lifespans. Montgomery County had adopted new grading and sediment controls for land development. Some defective sewers in Washington had been repaired, and the National Zoo had initiated a major program to halt the discharge of animal wastes into the creek. The report advocated stronger enforcement of existing anti-siltage and pollution measures and greater efforts to continuously remove trash and other debris from the stream.

In the mid-1980s there is still some pollution from combined sewers in times of prolonged rainfall, but most is from non-point sources--general street runoff. With the heavy development in the watershed accelerating runoff, the creek flow is more erratic than ever. Neither problem is readily solvable. [12]

The urban environs of Rock Creek Park presented other challenges unfamiliar to Park Service managers in their accustomed habitat. Most park users were local, and many used the park in ways that visitors to most other national parklands did not. Some of these uses were judged incompatible with the higher values for which the park had been set aside.

In 1936 Russell T. Edwards of the American Nature Association complained that the park had been converted to "an outdoor garage for the automobile washing industry." Evidently a traditionalist in matters of dress, Edwards was scandalized by the dishabille of the participants. "With a background of still reflecting waters with ducks and geese paddling idly about," he wrote, "you will find women in Mother Hubbards or nightgowns, I wouldn't know which, washing automobiles aided by, I presume, their husbands, stripped to the shirt and less." Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes agreed that the activity was unseemly and announced plans to forbid car washing--a prohibition not consistently enforced. [13]

Unfortunately, there were more serious offenses to occupy the attention of the U.S. Park Police, established under the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds in 1919 and inherited by the Park Service with National Capital Parks in 1933. "Residents describe the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway section between Taft Bridge and Calvert Street Bridge, particularly the south slope behind the Edgewater Riding Academy, as a 'jungle'--a habitat of unsavory characters, perverts, and delinquents," Assistant Regional Director Nash Castro advised the force in 1962. He ordered heightened surveillance of the area. [14] Surveillance would never be sufficient to thwart all evil-doing in the park, however.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Park Service made a more concerted effort to bring "parks to the people"--particularly urban parks to inner-city populations. The National Capital Region sponsored "Summer in the Parks" and "Parks for All Seasons" programs aimed at black youth and others who had been little drawn to the traditional park values and activities. Amplified popular music concerts were prominent features of the new programs. Some were held in Rock Creek Park, but when park neighbors complained of the noise and "undesirable elements" attracted, most such programs there (outside the Carter Barron Amphitheater) were discontinued.

In 1972 a Washingtonian magazine article summarized the stresses and contradictions stemming from Rock Creek Park's urban situation:

It is thought to be the largest urban park in the country, perhaps in the world, yet it is very hard to get into. It is a wilderness preserve largely untrammeled by man, but the polluted stream, that flows through it is dangerous to touch. It has the potential to bring people together in enjoyment and relaxation, but it is a physical barrier four miles long and one mile wide separating the haves [west of the park] from the have-nots [east of the park] in an already divided city. It is without peer as a living example of our heritage from prehistoric ages to colonial times to the present, yet the majority of those who use it are commuters who never leave their cars. [15]

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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