Robert Smith says he's got the best address in Washington. right across the street from the White House.
"I live in Lafayette Park because of the White House over there, the Treasury over there and the Blair House around the corner." said the 4O-year-old homeless man who has dodged police intent on moving him out of the park for six months. What allows me to feel like an impor- tant person."
The location has made the seven-acre federal preserve, once known as the Presidents Park but officially named Lafayette Square in 1834. an international crossroads, the grand stage for protests and for inaugural parades. Nearly every day it is filled by tourists photographing the live-in demonstrators, the homeless panhandling from office workers and bicycle messengers whizzing past chess players and picnickers.
To preserve this contemporary history, the staff of the National Trust for Historic Reservation is recording comments of those who use the great expanse of green lawn dotted with statues of heroes of the early republic and crisscrossed with red and black brick walks.
Michele Craig. director of education for the Decatur House, a national trust property that faces the 204-year-old park. Mid she was inspired to begin the year-long project when her grand- mother recounted childhood memories of Washington and taking tea the nearby Hay-Adams thing that happens every day and everyone experiences it in their own way."
The National Trust is collecting the park's history under a red-and- white stripped tent outside the Decatur House at Jackson Place and H street NW. As people stop by to view historical photographs, they are invited to contribute to the oral history. By yesterday, nearly 300 had stopped by, and Craig said 35 to 40 of them will be contacted for follow-up interviews.
Meridith Smoke, 70, of Washington, told Craig she always brings out-of-town visitors to the park, walking them to all four corners to see the statues and introducing them to the peace demonstrators who have kept a round-the-clock vigil for more than a decade.
One of those demonstrators is Concepcion Picciotto, 47, who has became an unofficial park hostess. Visitors regularly hock around her and listen to her ambling discourse on international issues and corruption at home.
When a group of German visitors came through the park recently, she had fliers to hand out in German. Shortly afterwards, eighth-graders visiting from Montgomery, Vt., photo- graphed her as she displayed the rocks she had painted in primary colors and decorated with white doves. For a donation, 1 visitor can take a peace stone home.
"My work is this work." she told the children. "I take no welfare. I don't take nothing. We have to work for world peace."
Next to Piccioto, an evangelical minister from San Diego had set up a stepladder, climbed up and, holding the Bible aloft, began reciting passages. Picciotto was irritated that he stood so dose to her aged protest signs. He was, she said, taking attention away from her message.
Apostle John C. Zahos. 33, said the Lord directed him to fly to Washington and to preach in Lafayette Square. Next to him, Collin Spruill Spruill. 28, of Washington, played Amazing Grace on a trumpet, saying afterward he hoped President Clinton would bring out his saxophone for a duet. Craig said she plans to go into the park in the next few weeks to interview Smith, Picciotto, Zahos, Spruill and others. During Historic Preservation Week next year, Craig said the statements and photographs of those interviewed will be on exhibit at the Decatur House.
For an the people who view the park as a place to protest or demonstrate. there are many more who see it as a convenient place to play or exercise.
Tom Roberts, 28. an accountant, spends his lunch hour hoping to find a challenging partner for a game of chess. He sets up his board and takes on all competitors. "At lunch time, this is the place to be for chess," he said.
Veteran's Administration employee John Standard. 51. uses the lawn as an exercise mat. The park, he said, is convenient to his office around the corner.
James Sledge. 23, a National Park Service employee for two years. said he would like to talk to Craig but he is too busy mowing the gas twice a week and planting' salvia and dusty miller in flower beds. *This is my park," he said as his red Jacobsen mower rumbled along chopping everything to a uniform two inch height. It is a big spacey piece. with a little group here and littie group there. There is room for everybody."