cross-posted at Artful Mistakes

Behind the fences at Fort Reno

Memory is unpredictable. What stays and what goes lack any rational processing.

For instance, I remember locking eyes with a brown-eyed boy for a heartbeat or two too long while we both sat on the grass watching the free music at Fort Reno Park in 1988. I never even spoke to that boy, but I can tell you his eyes were deep set, his eyelashes short, and that threads dangled from the hem of the white wife-beater tank top he wore. Like all of us that day in sweltering August heat, he glowed with a sheen of sweat.

Here in 2011, after a frustrating day of minor snafus, unable to remember necessary details like addresses and directions, I found myself driving by Fort Reno just as the incessant spring rain decided to clear off. Nostalgia for 1988 and other days and years at Fort Reno made me stop. I spent a happy hour muddying my shoes, taking many pictures, petting curious dogs, and getting all misty about my gnarled teenage years.

Dogs and brick towers

Fort Reno Park, at the corner of Chesapeake and Nebraska Avenue in the Tenleytown area, contains the highest point in DC. At a maximum of 409 feet above sea level, DC is second only to Florida in flatness. Given its height, the park is a favorite viewing site for 4th of July fireworks.

Fort Reno is also the only Civil War battle location within the District. The original fort (now gone) was built in 1861 and initially called Fort Pennsylvania. Civil War buffs, check out this National Park Service write up on its history.

The Tower on the Hill

The castle-like tower the park is known for was built in the late 1920s as part of the reservoir and water pumping station. The Fort Reno Pumping Station is still in operation at the top of the hill.

Despite the utilitarian purpose, the design is whimsical. The tower looks as if Rapunzel may soon let down her hair. Or it would, if there weren’t quite so much barbed wire.

No trespassing

Large fences protecting our water supply aside, Fort Reno is, as a park should be, a gathering space for the neighborhood. When I arrived, teenagers (likely from nearby Wilson High) were sitting cross-legged on the stage, deep in conversation. Later, I saw construction workers in hard hats cut through the park on their way home. A dog walker herded her charges up and down the hill, chatting with dog owners out with their happy hounds. A jogger stomped by, intent on his task. Small talk was exchanged, sticks fetched and water flung from shaken fur, peaceful humans and canines in community as sun returned.

The free concert series at Fort Reno still exists, going strong after 40 years, as bands known and unknown continue to set up on the rickety stage every summer and plug into a U-Haul full of sound equipment.

Stage at Fort Reno

The music line-up is organized by Amanda McKaye (sister of Ian McKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame). Check out for info. It’s too late to submit your band’s demo for this year, but you can donate. The Summer Concert Series is run entirely by volunteers.

And yes, Fugazi played at Fort Reno. A lot.  Here’s an entertaining snippet where Ian calls out pushy guys trying to be tough who, really, were not all that tough (note, work-unfriendly language used, so listen quietly).

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Nuts and boobies never go out of style

Graffiti decorates the stage, and it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. With the exception of the side of the stage that that reads “Facebook killed gays,” virtually all other commentary could have been written during my high school days.

All is Fair in Love and War

Climbing up the hill and circling the fence, the view rolled out in front of me. Distance (like time) lends perspective and beauty to sights, qualities that can elude us we are down in the weeds.


Clouds over Wilson playing fields

I couldn’t tell you why I remember that boy and his glistening youth in 1988. If he’s still out there, his deep set eyes presumably sport crow’s feet similar to the lines by mine. But I thank him for adding to a sultry afternoon of music in 1988 and windy walking in 2011 watching clouds flow over the horizon.

Clouds playing over the neighborhood

About the Author

Cynthia Daffron

Cynthia Daffron is a writer living in nuclear-free Takoma Park, MD with her two cats and a growing collection of ugly mobiles. She also maintains a blog, Artful Mistakes.

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