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Glen Echo Park Revives With Aid From Friends

The National Arts Park serves as a social bellwether

By TextAmy Kaslow, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Photos by Melanie Stetson Freeman Staff photographer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 1995


Maryland's Glen Echo Park, on the outskirts of Washington, is the story of a community in formation, of social upheaval and of people coming together again. From its original conception as a religious retreat to its current status as a National Arts Park, Glen Echo reflects a century of demographic and social change that has swept across the country.

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At Glen Echo Park, just three miles from the nation's capital, it's a typical Washington summer evening. The still air, thick with humidity, has brought gnats and mosquitoes out in full force.

But the warm weather has also drawn other visitors to the park. Couples stroll the grounds to cool off between calls at a Friday night square dance in the old Spanish Ballroom. Parents hoist their children up to big picture windows enclosing the idle but brightly lit carousel, where all ages are wide-eyed at the colorful giraffes, ostriches, horses, rabbits, and lions. ''The animals are asleep,'' explains a father to his little girl. ''We'll come back tomorrow, when the merry-go-round is open.''

By night the park appears all but abandoned, with the amusement-park rides shut down and the concessions, including the Candy Corner canteen, now boarded up and closed. But by day, the park is alive with children, picnickers, artists, dancers, puppeteers, and theater productions. And it buzzes with kiddie camps and adult classes from glass-blowing to tai chi.

From 1911 until it closed its turnstiles in 1968, Glen Echo was the site of one of the country's many amusement parks. Like Coney Island in New York and Atlantic City on the New Jersey shore, Glen Echo operated at the end of trolley lines on the outskirts of a major city.

There were many reasons for the demise of this and other trolley amusement parks. By the 1950s, disposable income was far greater than in the Depression and war years, and people were spending their money and time on other entertainment. The reliance on trolley travel vanished as commuters either accessed bus routes or drove their own cars, and people were moving to suburbs. Later, television kept a lot of people at home watching the box. And Walt Disney planners were developing their earliest theme parks.

But the most disturbing reason that Glen Echo Amusement Park closed was the ugliness surrounding the racial desegregation of the park. The 1960s were a watershed for civil rights in the US; the sleepy southern town of Washington and its environs was no exception.

For years, blacks could take the trolley car out to Glen Echo, but they were not permitted to enter because of the ''Whites Only'' policy. Maryland law did not prohibit segregation at private businesses.

During the summer of 1960, white residents of Bannockburn, a progressive community just across from the park, joined forces with blacks and picketed outside the park's gates. Five blacks were arrested after they broke the Jim Crow law by entering the park and staging a sit-in at the carousel.

Hyman Bookbinder still lives in Bannockburn, and has a strong recollection of those days. Sitting forward in his rocking chair, Mr. Bookbinder pulls out the picketing script he wrote to challenge white parkgoers. ''Jackie Robinson can't play at Glen Echo... '' it begins. ''How would you like to tell your children they cannot play at Glen Echo Park because you gave them the wrong color skin?'' Bookbinder did not allow his own teenage children into the park. Instead, they helped him, along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, to distribute leaflets at the picket site.

In 1961, the Montgomery County Council forced Glen Echo to admit blacks. The park quietly announced the integration during that winter.