Clean Green Team Lights Up Potomac Gardens

Kids playing ball in the new courtyard

Every two weeks during the growing season, the sound of mowers and leaf blowers fills the air in Potomac Gardens as a uniformed landscape crew makes its way through the grounds. The men maintaining these grounds are called the Clean Green Team, and most of them have lived in Potomac Gardens since they were kids. Now they are paid to care for the landscape where most of the residents know them and their families. Not only that, but some of the landscapes they now maintain were recently carved out of concrete with help from Clean Green Team personnel. 

Everybody Wins

Since the mid-1990s, The Little Lights Urban Ministries ( ) has offered faith-based services to over one hundred children from the Potomac Gardens Public Housing Complex and the surrounding neighborhood. It is managed by husband and wife team Steve and Mary Park with the help of about 30 other full and part-time staff. The Clean Green Team is a new social enterprise of Little Lights, and has about ten members. The D.C. Housing Authority, which owns Potomac Gardens, supports the landscape maintenance through an arrangement with Little Lights Ministries. In exchange, Little Lights organizes training, purchases and maintains landscape equipment, and manages the staff and their schedule. 

Every two weeks, the Clean Green Team spends two days maintaining the grounds at Potomac Gardens and another two days maintaining the grounds of Hopkins Plaza, a nearby public housing development. They mow, trim, blow, weed, water, prune, and mulch. The crew proudly sports uniforms, steel-toed boots, hats, safety goggles, gloves and ear protection. They get a lot of compliments on their work from residents, who are neighbors, friends, and family members. 

A Poolesville, Maryland, landscape contractor, D & A Dunlevy ( ), has taken the Clean Green Team under their wing, travelling down to Potomac Gardens every two weeks to hold team meetings and provide training. Angie Dunlevy, company co-founder, was a Little Lights volunteer about seven years ago. This relationship led to the mentoring role now played by Dave Dunlevy and his son Blake. They have taught the Green Team men the basics of landscape maintenance, have introduced them to safe chain saw operation, and even organized a field trip where they were given the opportunity to climb trees using ropes and harnesses.  “I liked being up there,” says Clean Green Team member Clarence Campbell, saying he’d been a little afraid heights before. 

Potomac Gardens Landscape

Potomac Gardens is a series of fourteen three-story brick apartment buildings forming various courtyards around the 1200 block of G Street, SE.  There are about 350 units in the complex, built in the mid-1960s by General Contractor Edward M. Crough, and designed by Metcalf and Associates Architects. In 1971 Potomac Gardens won an Award for Excellence in Architecture.  I can’t say if most of the original courtyards were completely paved, but everyone I spoke to at Potomac Gardens only remembers them this way. “It was all concrete,” residents told me without affection. So maybe the landscape was something left, or cut out of, the original plans. Or maybe people didn’t think it was important, though we now know better.

In recent years, D.C. Public Housing allocated funds for some capital improvements to Potomac Gardens and some of these concrete courtyards were the beneficiaries. Enough paving was removed in the first courtyard to install some grass and trees. Another courtyard got a concrete seat wall around an existing planted area with an older shade tree. 

The next project was more ambitious. And it occurred partly due to the existing Clean Green Team structure. A large courtyard was redesigned to include a large, rectangular artificial turf play area, surrounded by raised concrete planters. Around the perimeter are widened walkways .The planters provide seating facing into the play area and onto the walkways facing the buildings. New crape myrtles and maple trees line the space and will provide shade in a few years.

Completed in March 2013, residents call the new courtyard a success. Play areas are separated from pedestrian circulation areas, but both are easily visible and accessible. Kids can toss a football without interfering with pedestrian traffic, and residents can watch what’s going on from their apartments overlooking the space. “It’s real pretty around here now, and it was really terrible before,” says resident Bonita Guerrero.” I like to wake up and look out of my window” she continues, “Everybody’s got a chair by their kitchen window.” Ms. Guerrero has just articulated the famous “Eyes on the Street” concept advanced by Jane Jacobs in her famous 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Ms. Jacobs believed that streets are safer when more people are on them and can see them from their windows. The new Potomac Gardens courtyard seems to work in exactly this way.

General contracting was by D & A Dunlevy, with paid assistance with planting by the Clean Green Team who now water the trees they planted and watch them grow. It’s a great arrangement. Team member Clarence Campbell says, “Before I became a landscaper I didn’t pay attention to grass and trees. Now I notice things like that all over.” 

Future Directions

Clarence says he’s been interested in architecture and design since junior high school. When he was younger he did artwork at the Corner Store with Kris Swanson, participating in her annual art shows. He plans to take his GED test this year to get his high school diploma and position himself for attending college. Ruben Davis, another Green Team member, has always liked to draw and might be interested in the same thing. The two grew up together. 

Other team members, like Gary Sams and Lawrence Dozier are interested in full time landscape maintenance jobs. The workforce training they have done at Potomac Gardens for the past three years will be a big help to them when applying for positions. A local university has offered to host interested team members at the landscape architecture and landscape management departments this fall so they can see what students and teachers work on together. 

Meanwhile, Little Lights Ministries hopes to expand opportunities for the Clean Green Team by finding additional landscape maintenance clients. The group has a van and driver, tools, energy, and available time in their schedule.   Contact Little Lights Ministries to discuss your landscape maintenance project.

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect practicing on Capitol Hill and beyond.  She thanks the Clean Green Team and Little Lights staff for showing her their community and their wonderful work.

Little Lights campers with summer coordinator Dwaine Brown, posing in the new Potomac Gardens courtyard.
Clean Green Team, July 2014: Left, Lawrence Dozier, Clarence Campbell, Rubin Davis. Back middle: Curtis Bates, Gary Sams, Henry Dent, Antonio Smith
Antonio Smith string trims around a Crape myrtle at Potomac Gardens

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