WASHINGTON — This is an elegant city. It is smooth and soft-spoken. It's clean and well kept, possibly because most of the residential buildings in the city are family townhouses. Low, two, three-story buildings spread the city out, creating the impression Washington is bigger than it is. Sparse-density urbanity evokes the pastoral, idyllic way of life, even if turning the corner might plunge you into a hip, cranky street, one that distinguishes the predominantly young population of the city from its more traditional aspects.
Another spice of this city: a southern flavor and mindset which melts away the stress that in New York is the elixir of life. For the skeptics and outsiders who have the impression that DC is dormant, unsexy and boring, there is an answer in rediscovering the pleasure of wonder, that effort of finding, instead of just being served. There, of course, is one big thing that Washington leaves a visitor wanting. In this flat land of large spaces, walking, and biking, one misses the squares and public areas where people can gather and hang out. There are no piazzas, the lifeblood of the urban community, a comfort for humanity from the times of polis and the Etruscans.
It is, therefore, no wonder that an institution as relatively small as Meridian Hill Park arouses such passion among Washingtonians. It is almost incomprehensible how much tenderness and care is provoked by this park, borrowed from the style of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A bit more than 100 years old, an Italian-style terraced fountain cascades into pools at the lower half, while gardens in the French Baroque style dominate the upper half, with walls, fountains, balustrades and benches. Built with concrete aggregate, the park was clearly not built by craftsmen but by industrial savoir-faire. Perhaps this is because the park was the least prioritized of the ambitious and influential projects that expanded the capital.
David Montgomery set the scene in his piece, "A Walk In the Park With a Past." White men built the capital of their new country in the tidewater bowl below, and an early landowner called the overlook Meridian Hill. Pierre L'Enfant ran his ruler along the foot of the escarpment and made it the northern border of his street plan. Several years later, Thomas Jefferson drew a line from the front door of the White House up 16th Street to the top of the hill and declared it the prime meridian for the planet, from which all distance and time should be measured.
One hundred years after its founding, the White House became too tight for the growing administration. But before Congress approved a half-million dollar expansion of the executive offices into today's West Wing, and Theodore Roosevelt moved into the new home with his big family, a rich family proposed to build a new and larger White House on the not-too-distant Meridian Hill. Backed by one of the architects of the Library of Congress, Mary Foote Henderson, the most powerful and influential woman in town, envisioned a new White House as a massive, temple-like complex with sprawling terraces and columned arcades.
The Hendersons had recently built a huge brownstone mansion, and with the new White House just across the street from their "castle," the value of their land would increase enormously, making them even richer. They owned a lot of land along 16th Street that linked Meridian Hill with the White House. Mary Foote, who developed a respectable taste for the arts at a very young age, was a daughter of a prominent judge who later became Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. Besides the new White House, she wanted to change 16th Street into Presidents Avenue, which would be lined, aside lavish diplomatic mansions, with the statue of each American president. Hendersons' plan was politely refused, but that did not stop her. With vigor, she proposed Meridian Hill become the location for the Lincoln Mausoleum. The project, again, was denied, but the resilient lady who had many friends in Congress finally found success with her proposal to build the Meridian Hill Park.
Meridian Hill at sunset — Photo: justgrimes
The park was completed in 1930, with statues of Dante, Joan of Arc and James Buchanan. Continues Montgomery with his description of the park:
An increasingly complex and diverse cast of characters was drawn to the social and geological drama of the place: Edwardian promenaders, Prohibition partiers, Depression bed rollers, bossy senatorial wives, soccer players, drummers, drug dealers, muggers, lovers, writers, martial artists, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Von Trapp Family Singers, Sun Ra, Tito Puente, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Bill Clinton.
He forgot Fidel Castro, who in April 1959, just a few months after he crushed Battista, visited the United States and came to the park from the nearby Cuban embassy.
From the time Washingtonian "aristocracy" dressed up to come to the park to listen to the Sunday concerts, to the 1960's when it became a get-together scene for human rights advocates and supporters of the assassinated Malcolm X, Meridian Hill Park was a social laboratory. It was the last big wave of gentrifying change in the city, causing the departure of many African Americans and Hispanics, as recorded in this piece in the Washington Post.
Meridian Park has always been a stage of social change and experimentation–never gradual, but radical and dramatic. Today, the park looks abandoned, the cascades and fountains dried, the lawn dusty, the sword of Joan of Arc broken. If abandoned, Meridian Hill Park is not deserted. The local community takes care of the place, and during the weekend the bare park is still crowded with people practicing yoga people, debate groups, religious associations. But above all, on long summer nights, a group of unusual musicians and dancers appear in the park, drummers and dancers who have been the constant heartbeat of D.C."s Meridian Hill Park for nearly 50 years.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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