A few years ago, a fifth-generation Washingtonian and commercial developer named Geary Simon, grieving the sudden death of his close friend Sonny Bono, was making frequent trips out West to visit the grave of the congressman, entertainer, and restaurateur until distance became a problem, and Simon realized that “I’ve gotta build a park for my friend.”
Virtually any Washingtonian with the gumption and interest can turn one of the city’s green spaces into their own personal park–or, it seems, memorial–through the city’s Park Partners program. Residents pick a space, sign an agreement promising to maintain it, and generally do little more than keep the area clean and green. The program was intended simply as an urban renewal initiative, a way of combating the ongoing battle against litter, pollution, and vandalism that have destroyed many of the city’s parks. But there’s nothing to prevent someone from making the most of their park.
Simon approached the Department of Parks and Recreation with his chosen spot: a triangle of concrete and weeds at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and 20th and O streets, one block southwest of Dupont Circle. The department approved his plan, and Simon threw himself into the project, tearing out not just the weeds, but the sidewalks as well. He installed a sprinkler system and lighting, and flew in authentic Kentucky bluegrass, plus a Japanese maple from a nursery in Sonny’s congressional district. A short, old iron fence now surrounds the park–a space the size of a smallish studio apartment–while two benches provide seating, and a bronze plaque at the entrance alerts particularly observant pedestrians to the fact that they are walking by the Sonny Bono Memorial Park.
Today, the park is ringed by a variety of apartment and office buildings, including a FedEx World Service Center, the Robert Strauss Building (one Washington wise man looking out over another), and the Front Page, the bar where Monica Lewinsky once relaxed with a drink after driving her friend Linda to drop off some tapes at a lawyer’s office. Until recently, the city’s historical society was also located on that block. A collections librarian there was apparently one of the less observant; not until I called to ask about the park did he realize what the verdant triangle across from his office was.
City officials weren’t quite prepared for Simon’s enthusiasm. Liz Guthrie, who runs the park program, was surprised and pleased–“I think that’s wonderful!”–to learn that Simon has provided for the upkeep of the park in his will, guaranteeing Sonny’s name will be around for future generations. Most park sponsors sign a three-year agreement that is automatically renewed unless either side decides to end it. In the six years since Simon took over the park, he has poured substantial funds into it, spending $25,000 on the initial development and an additional four to five thousand each year for upkeep. He has even hired a porter to perform regular maintenance.
Standing in the park, the fiftyish Simon recalls first meeting Sonny at a Georgetown tae kwon do academy where Simon’s girlfriend gave lessons to Mary Bono and the couple’s children. Like most politicians and celebrities, Sonny liked being recognized. But Simon wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
Sonny couldn’t tell if he was being played. He said he was a congressman. “You’re new, though,” replied Simon. “What did you do before that?” They both burst out laughing and were soon fast friends.
As spring approaches, Simon is preparing to replant the park; each April he imports 800 white tulip bulbs from Holland. This spring he plans to add artwork–maybe a sculpture or statue–and he is working on a source of shade for hot summer days. Beneath the park is a vault containing sheet music for “The Beat Goes On,” a coffee mug from Sonny’s restaurant, campaign memorabilia, and sealed envelopes from Sonny’s friends. Simon thinks Sonny would approve.
The diminutive congressman served in Washington for only three years before his death; his widow Mary has now held his seat for twice that time. But Simon doesn’t have any doubt that Sonny could have had a much greater impact on the city. At an Ocean City, Md., restaurant one summer, Sonny looked around the table and announced to his friends, “I think I’ll run for president.” If he’d lived, Simon says, “I definitely think Sonny would have run.”