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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Check It hopeful DC developer will allow continued use of ‘Secret Garden’


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Check It Enterprises (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Since moving into and later purchasing the three small buildings in Anacostia that it uses as its headquarters and shares with others, the LGBTQ youth-run company and community services center Check It Enterprises has maintained and improved a parcel of land behind its buildings known as the Secret Garden.

Hidden by the streets and buildings surrounding it, the 3,900-square foot parcel of land directly behind the Check It buildings at 1918, 1920 and 1922 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., S.E., has been used by local neighborhood businesses and community groups as a vegetable garden, home to honey producing beehives, a space for outdoor concerts on a small wooden stage, and a popular community meeting space with tables where families share meals.

Ron Moten, Check It’s managing member and co-founder who serves
as an advisor to the youth members, said the owner of the company that sold the
three buildings to Check It last year believed the land in question belonged to
the three buildings now owned by Check It.

But Moten said that assessment came under question when the
Douglas Development Corporation, founded by D.C. real estate titan Douglas
Jemal, informed him last October that the land belonged to Douglas Development
and Check it would have to dismantle the amenities now occupying the outdoor
space and turn it over to Jemal.

Moten told the Washington Blade that an attorney representing
Douglas Development pointed to D.C. property records showing that Jemal
purchased the land in 2003 for $100,000, with the land currently assed by the
city at a little over $167,000.

People in the Anacostia community familiar with the outdoor
space have said that it had been abandoned for years and became overgrown with
weeds, littered with trash and hypodermic needles, and overrun by rodents. It
was members of the local small businesses surrounding the land and nearby
neighbors, later joined by Check It, that cleaned up the space and turned it
into what they now call the Secret Garden.

The land is surrounded by buildings on all four sides that are
bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Good Hope Road, 13th Street and
U Street, S.E., with no alleyways providing access to the land. Moten notes
that the only access to the space is through the buildings on Martin Luther
King Jr. Avenue, including the Check It buildings and a few others, including
one small building owned by Douglas Development.

Moten said that after D.C. attorney and community activist
Johnny Barnes came on board to represent Check It in the dispute with Douglas
Development, the company agreed to enter negotiations with Check It to resolve
the matter amicably.

Moten said a press conference has been scheduled for noon on
Monday, Feb. 1, at the Check It headquarters where an announcement was expected
to be made about the future of the Secret Garden.

Members of the community believe news media reports about
Douglas Development’s initial demand that Check It and the community groups
using the Secret Garden withdraw from the outdoor space may have softened the
company’s position.

Some of the media reports, including a write-up on the matter by
Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas, reported that the 79-year-old Jemal
had been among the people who received a pardon from President Trump during
Trump’s last week in office. The Trump pardon absolved Jemal of a 2006 wire
fraud conviction on grounds, according to a White House statement, that Jamal
was an “American businessman and philanthropist credited with rebuilding many
urban inner cities in the United States.”

News of the press conference also follows an online petition
drive that Moten organized on behalf of Check It that called on the public to
urge Jemal to withdraw his claim on the land in question.

“Our community transformed the space into a popular Anacostia
landmark that hosts concerts, wakes, community meetings and pop-up shops,” the
petition states. “The garden is ours.”

The petition adds, “Mr. Jemal got a pardon. The Garden deserves
a pardon, too. Please sign this petition to ask Mr. Jemal to do the right thing
and let us keep what rightfully belongs to us.”

A spokesperson for Douglas Development couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Check It operates a clothing manufacturing and sales business
specializing in T-shits and other apparel. On its web site the LGBTQ youth led
company says it also uses its headquarters and the outdoor Secret Garden space
to teach young people about the fashion industry through silk-screening and
sewing classes and through its business activities it fosters entrepreneurship
in a safe space.

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights