Lafayette Park: For Homeless,
protesters, pigeons, squirrels,
a place to call home

The Baltimore Sun
January 13, 1993, By Robert Ruby, Staff Writer

On this statue-flecked patch,
homeless and protesters may rest their heads
but not sleep

Mail call in Lafayette Park.

William Thomas, who has lived In the park since 1981 -- the better to be close to the White House, the better to exercise his right of free expression in what serves as the nation's front yard -- has returned from the post office to his home, on the sidewalk.

He has company.

There is his wife, Ellen, fellow park resident. There usually are tourists. There always are the homeless waiting out the day on the benches. Morning is the time for presidential aides: on their way to work they hurry past Andrew Jackson, the president tipping his hat from a rearing bronze horse.

Not long ago a young man in the park took off all his clothes except a T-shirt and without a word set them alight on one of the concrete tables used for chess. There are the child-care workers wheeling Infants in 10-seat strollers, the lovers discreet and Indiscreet, the joggers, the television camera crews wanting the White House as a backdrop.

There are the squirrel feeders. Until the National park Service dissuaded them, two especially devoted patrons of the squirrels helped fuel a population explosion by bringing 100 pounds of peanuts a week.

Lafayette Park is a seven-acre theme park, the country's self-lmage being the theme. The park displays what the country wishes it were as well as what it is: Alongside the heroic statuary lie more of the homeless.

It is front yard because people gather there, opposite the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, to be seen and heard by their fellow citizens. It is backyard too since countless TV images and postcards have made the space nearly as intimate as one's home. Even if you have never been in Washington you know that the porticoed White House rests on a manicured lawn and has behind It, as a stony sentinel, the Washington Monument. That is the view from Lafayette Park.

Anyone watching TV during Inauguratlon week will get another glimpse of the area. To prepare for the Inauguration parade on Jan. 20, workers began buildlng bleachers before Thanksgiving. People may realize, finally, that the statue of Baron William Augustus Henry Ferdinand von Steuben, Prussian hero of the Revolutionary War, looks remarkably like Clinton, especially around the mouth.

Mr. Clinton's Inaugural planners have promised an Inauguration week fully open to the public, though presumably less so than the Inauguration of Andrew Jackson.

Jackson rode his horse from the Capitol to the White House and Invited his fellow citizens Into the mansion. It was 1829. His guests stood on the furniture, and smashed much of the glassware. Meanwhile an even larger crowd of supporters gathered In Lafayette Park. To prevent storming of the Whlte House, the president's men sent tubs of well spiked punch across Pennsylvania Avenue.

William and Ellen Thomas know much of the lore and have become part of it. They have lived In the park longer than anyone else since the federal government acquired the land, in 1791. They have been George and Barbara Bush's closest Washington neighbors, as measured by proximity though not by contact.They intend to become neighbors of the Clintons.

This is the logical place to do what we do," Ms. Thomas says. They wait, not always optimistically, for the public and the residents of the White House to notice their vigil.Their cause is nuclear disarmament as announced by their bright painted signs. We're like the prophets of old standing outside the Pharaoh's gate." she says. Women opposed to America's entry into World War I came to Lafayette Park to demonstrate. In 1917, So did clergy protestlng the American bombing of Cambodia, In 1970. So did opponents of the Shah of Iran 1979. So did advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment: opponents of the amendment: supporters of the Nicaraguan left: of the Nicaguan right: groups wanting more federal money for AIDS research.

Mr. Thomas began his vigil 1981 on the sidewalk directly front of the White House fence. The National Park Service then changed its regulations to make It an offense to stand still along that stretch of sidewalk.

He moved into the park. His around-the-clock presence was tended to demonstrate the importance he attached to his cause, and was thus part of his message. The Supreme Court then held that camping could be prohibited In Lafayette Park: then came regulations to define camping (no stretching out in a sleeping bag and actually sleeping) and a limit on the size of one's signs (3 square feet).

So Mr. and Ms. Thomas cat-nap sitting up. Or they keep themselves wrapped In blankets without acrually falling asleep, or one of them sometimes goes for several hours to the apartment of a friend. When the Thomases need a longer break, they enlist a stand-in to keep the vigil unbroken. They have been arrested several times for making the park their residence and in court have a mixture of wins and losses. In one legal appeal, Mr. Thomas agues that he and other protesters "have done little more than think express thought and, occaslonally, fall asleep."

He is 45, as is his wife. Their multiple layers of trousers and shirts, protection against the cold, give them the bulk of muscled laborers. They have the weathered faces of farmers.

"The first couple of years I was out here I felt kind of sorry for myself." Ellen Thomas says. "But you adapt."

Mr. Thomas is the dreamier one. He says his profession is peace-maker." For years he traveled in Europe and the Middle East, and along the way tried to Renounce his American citizenship. Bearded and with longish brown hair, and sitting next to his small pile of possessions, he looks like a sea captain yet to unpack his bags after an exhaustingly long voyage.

Lafayette Park Is the place he has lived the longest ever. "It's my task." he says, "It's my mission."

He has brought back from the the post office court notices and letters from park visitors.

A man writes from Wurzburg, Germany, to thank Mr.Thomas for a pamphlet about disarmament. A woman writes to another protester who has been there as long as Mr.Thomas and shares his post office box. Enclosed with the letter are snapshots the writer took of the protest signs.

In 12 years, no one living In the White House has stopped to talk to the Thomases. They keep hoping. "I don't think Clinton knows we're here yet." Ms. Thomas says, sounding sanguine."It would be nice to think he hears us."

Their home -- their park -- embodies almost everything that can be distinctly American within an urban garden.

Lafayette Park has grass, but is anything but manicured. The brick paths are suggestions rather than firm orders about where to walk.

It is a park because George Washington wanted one. Originally it was included in the grounds set aside for the presidential house-to-be, But Thomas Jefferson complained that the presidential estate was large enough for two emperors, one Pope and the grand Lama." Certainly too grand for a republlc. At Jefferson's request Pennsylvania Avenue was extended to create the seven-acre park separate from the White House.

For a time the area was called 'President's Square." Stephen Decatur -- Maryland native, naval hero of the War of 1812 and hero of skirmishes wlth the Barbary pirates - bullt the frst private house on its borders. In 1819. Though he did not have long to enjoy It (Decatur was killed in a duel) the park was about to become the capital's prestige address.

At various times Decatur House served as home to the ambassadors of France, Russia and England, and to three secretaries of state. Dolley Madison, James Madison's widow, built a house on the opposte side of the park and from there, as the Pamela Harriman of her day, decorously managed the social life of the powerful.

Daniel Webster lived on the north side of the park. Henry Clay owned property on the eastern side but exchanged it for an Andalusian jackass; the man who traded away the jackass proceeded to bulld a 30-room house. Everyone moved to the area for the same reason: to live within a block of the White House.

After a lavish outdoor reception in 1824 for Marquis de Lafayette. George Washington's ally from France, people rechristened the area "Lafayette Square." During the Civil War it was a muddy campground for union soldiers, then a military cemetery, as president, Ulysses S. Grant ordered the graves moved to Arlington National Cemetery and made the park his private zoo, stocked with deer and prairie dogs.

The park Is never unpeopled. George Erland Davld Owen rests on a bench after bicycling, he says, from Utica, N.Y.. to complain to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs about the lack of attention paid to veterans, such as himself. Strapped to the rear of the bicycle is a baby carriage, cradling a battered suit-case. He will spend the night outside but not tn the park: "A little too noisy." he says. Mary Lewis, on her lunch break from the lnternal Revenue Service, plays the popular sport of trying to decide which of the buildings facing the square she would most like to have as her house.

The structures are a mix of stolid Georgian and upright Federalist, though some of the details are coquettishly Victorian. And mostly fake. Despite appearances, most of the building are less than 40 years old. Dolley Madisons house (now part of a federal court complex) and Decatur House (a museum) are the real thlng.

Ms. Lewis chooses 736 Jackson Place. Three stories in brick, topped by dormer windows, everything painted rich cream, the epitome of conservative stylishness, vaguely Federalist. It is headquarters for President Bush's Points of Light Foundation, and a vacancy is likely.

The chess players arrive in force at noon. They play speeded-up games worthy of commodity brokers during a bidding war. Ten minutes for each game, timed by a clock, six games in an hour. Rooks and knights fly around the boards. "Fun." Jose Ellaurt, a graphic designer, says during a 30-second break between games, "but not good practice for a real toumament."

Watching all day are Andrew Jackson and Lafayette. And von Steuben and Comte de Rochambeau. Thaddeus Kosciusko and Comte d'Estaing and Comte de Grasse - heroes all. Not long ago von Steuben was holding a paper cup from Roy Rogers. Starlings preen on Andrew Jackson's hat. All of that is allowed in one's home, one's yard.

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