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Hyattsville City Council appears splintered over what Magruder Park should be renamed, at least among those who volunteered their opinion at a recent meeting. With five suggestions before them, debate currently centers around if it is wise to name the park after someone who recently died.
That person would be David C. Driskell, a nationally-renknown African American artist who lived in Hyattsville for decades. Driskell, who died in 2020 from Covid, is the only individual among the suggested names put forth by city committees tasked with culling more than 800 community suggestions for the renaming down to a small list for final consideration by City Council. The other suggested names honor either the indigenous “Nacotchtank” people who inhabited the Anacostia watershed at the onset of European colonization, concepts such as “Unity” or “Inspiration”, or refer to the “Gateway” Arts District nearby.
The Driskell recommendation was far and away the most-popular suggestion submitted by residents over the summer, accounting for more than 25 percent of the total suggestions. During Hyattsville’s March 15, 2021 meeting, Councilor’s Danny Schaible, Robert Croslin, Erika Spell-Wolf, and Ben Simasek all indicated support for the Driskell name.
Schaible said the Gateway, Unity and Inspiration suggestions lacked a sense of place, a quality he found only in the Nacotchtank name and the Driskell suggestion. He leaned toward Driskell, in part because of the apparent popularity of the suggestion among city residents, and because Driskell was a figure worthy of the honor.
“I think naming the park after a visual artist creates a lot of opportunities to create a design and an aesthetic in the park to honor David Driskell,” said Schaible.
Croslin said Driskell was a worthy namesake because of his civic involvement, stature in the arts community, and also noted the community support for the suggestion.
“He never hesitated to help anyone in the community, if there was an arts program or if the Hyattsville CDC needed someone to jury an arts festival,” said Croslin. “From my point of view I think he put Hyattsville on the map.”
Test of time
But other council members were worried if the Driskell name would stand the “test of time”, either fading from community consciousness as an individual or by Driskell’s name being tarnished by a hypothetical yet-unknown scandal or association. Though they shared differing views on their preferred suggestion, Councilors Joseph Solomon, Bart Lawrence and Edouard Haba all were wary of naming the park after an individual for those reasons.
“To draw back to the tenets we sent to the committees: we wanted something that will stand the test of time. We wanted something that we basically wouldn’t have to come to this point again,” said Solomon, who supports the “Inspiration” suggestion. “There is no indication we would ever have to do that, but I don’t know a way around that when choosing the name of a person. We never know what may happen or what someone may look up and find as a point of contention in the future.”
Lawrence, who supports the Nacotchtank suggestion, said City Council should be cautious if choosing the name the park after a person.
“Dr. Driskell, I did not know him. I know of him. The caution we have been given is one worth considering,” said Lawrence.
Haba also urged against naming the park after an individual, saying he supported either Nacotchtank – though he worried it may be hard to pronounce – or “Unity”.
“Dr. Driskell was a great resident of the city and well known throughout the country and abroad, but life is life,” said Haba. “We don’t know what else could happen down the line, 100 years from now. I would err on the side of going with a concept name.”
Schaible, responding to concerns about the future palatability of naming the park after Driskell, said he was not worried. Driskell, Schaible emphasized, was a city resident who had an outsized impact on the world and who was the leading choice of city residents.
“It is okay to honor people even with the possibility that there could be an outcome down the road that may not be appealing to everyone,” said Schaible. “I wouldn’t be so cautious of that possibility that we wouldn’t memorialize something after one of our greatest residents.”
But Haba noted that contemporary impact and popularity don’t always last. William Pinkney Magruder, Haba said, was also likely a popular choice viewed as an honor-worthy resident at the time he donated the parkland with deed conditions that prohibited people of color from using the park.
“Those residents at that time may have also felt that he was a great resident of wherever he was at that time,” said Haba. “Today, yes, we can say the same about Dr. Driskell. Tomorrow, we don’t know if that will be the same. I hope it will be the same, but if we are going through this process, I will favor something that will stand the test of time.”
Hyattsville will hold a public hearing April 6, 2021 to gather feedback from residents on the suggested names.