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 assessed 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 he 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-shirts 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.