A brown sign near the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 31st Street SE announces that you’re looking at the Randle Highlands Recreation Center. There are two tennis courts, which are serviceable, except they need to be mowed—they’ve got lots of cracks with grass growing through. Next to the courts, on the other side of a chain link fence, is a tiny patch of green surrounded by a brick walkway lined with benches. Weeds are gradually beginning to cover up the bricks. In the middle of this green space sits the center’s main piece of play equipment: an old tire.

It looks as if the place hasn’t seen a recreation-seeker all summer.

“There’s no rec center here,” says a man who opens a side door at the adjacent Randle Highlands Elementary School. He’s right: There’s no mention of Randle Highlands on the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR) online list of recreation centers or in its 2008 Fall programming guide.

DPR spokesman John Stokes confirms that the brown sign is in error. “DPR does not have a facility at Randle Highlands,” he writes in an e-mail. “The tennis courts however do belong to DPR.”

There are more than 80 recreation and community centers in this city. Almost all of them have a basketball court, an athletic field of some kind, and a playground outdoors. And at some point in the last decade, no doubt almost every rec received some kind of love from its municipality, such as new play equipment or resurfaced tennis courts.

And at some point they may have sprung a leak in the roof, say, or suffered a rat infestation—items no doubt on some punch list in a central office, awaiting remediation. Some facilities have slid into decrepitude.

Then there are the jewels of the network. The newer and bigger recs, like Turkey Thicket and Trinidad, stand as monuments to the city’s newfound prosperity. They’re neat, clean, and they have lots of stuff: big-screen TVs, weight rooms, computer labs, and indoor gyms.

A well-worn mythology in District culture holds that city authorities discriminate in divvying out services: Prosperous white neighborhoods, the thinking goes, get all the goodies, and struggling black neighborhoods get the shaft. “Guess Which Ward Gets the Rec Center,” groaned a 2004 Courtland Milloy column in the Washington Post. Milloy lamented the closure of a rec in poor Ward 8 ahead of a groundbreaking in wealthy Ward 3.

A tour of D.C. rec centers, however, reveals no conspiracies. Just randomness: Some troubled neighborhoods have sparkling facilities, and some pristine neighborhoods have dives. What binds them together is an agency that scrambles every day to patch this roof, clean up that trash, and shoo away those homeless guys. Here’s a selective inventory.

Payne Recreation Center, 303 15th St. SE

Amenities: Baseball Diamond

Bottom Line: Teen Idles

DPR lists a baseball diamond as the only amenity at Payne. Why no mention of the tennis court, tennis wall, basketball courts, or play equipment? A partial explanation could be that the tennis net is usually sagging, as is the tennis wall, somehow. A group of teenagers who loitered at the Payne gate almost every day this summer didn’t work too much on their strokes.

“We just sit here and be depressed about life,” says one girl on an August afternoon. She won’t identify herself to a reporter because, she says, she has multiple pending criminal charges. She blames her idleness entirely on the rec center. “We don’t got nothing to do.”

Inside, the site manager is on the phone, trying to get somebody to help him fix his printer. The red light is blinking; there’s a paper jam or something. He says he can’t talk to a reporter.

The center’s multipurpose room is spare. Noted amenities of this space include tables and a fan. The hallway between the administrative offices is crammed with mop buckets and dustbins, and there’s dirt all over the floor. It’s a bad time to visit. Summer camp programs have just ended, and classes are about to begin at Payne Elementary School, which offers up a few rooms on the first floor for recreation. Apparently, for the time being, it’s stuffed all its mopping equipment into this one hallway. DPR spokesman Stokes says Payne was closed for two weeks prior to the opening of school for “deep cleaning.”

As for the outdoor amenities, Stokes says, “The tennis courts at Payne belong to DCPS.”

And as for those idle teens, Stokes says Payne offers three soccer teams, homework assistance, a “Young Ladies on the Rise” program for females, “Supreme Teens” events, and basketball.

“The youth who sit on the stoop participate in these activities,” Stokes says, “but when not allowed to misbehave in the facility, they hang outside.”

Turkey Thicket Recreation Center, 1100 Michigan Ave. NE

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Basketball Courts, Tennis Courts, Weight Room, Indoor Pool, Gymnasium, Computer Lab

Bottom Line: High-Tech Recreation Laboratory

Turkey Thicket is one of the city’s biggest rec centers. The main building, with its curvy red-brick façade, looks like some kind of space-age laboratory. The inside is filled with screaming children running to and from the pool. There are murals on the walls that look like they were painted with expertise and not just heartwarming intentions.

The center is the product of a $10 million upgrade completed in 2006.

“We have more of everything than any other site,” says Mark Williams, manager of rec centers in Ward 5. Aside from the sports, Turkey Thicket offers grown-ups programs like tai chi and yoga.

The main room’s floor shows none of the wear and negligence of the disaster at Payne. It looks bright and shiny, if slightly scuffed. That’s not good enough for Williams, who says the floor will be stripped and redone in a month, at which point the linoleum tiles will be gleaming like the ones on the floor of the recently redone computer lab.

Turkey Thicket is home to the city’s triathlons for kids. And this year it was the site of a promotional stop for Eddie Murphy’s movie Meet Dave.

On a recent Friday afternoon, three fellows are shooting hoops in the gym.

“It’s a great facility,” says Dan Castillo, 28. Castillo says he commutes to Turkey Thicket from Takoma for the gym. But the Takoma rec, he says, has a better indoor pool.

Joseph H. Cole Recreation Center, 1200 Morse St. NE

Amenities: Gymnasium, Playground

Bottom Line: Not Quite Camelot

Joseph Cole site manager K’Yanna Blackwell, 29, says she has worked there since May 2007 and calls it her “home away from home.” She picks up trash around the premises. She’s proud that the rec is home to the city’s champion cheerleading squad.

Joe Cole embodies the postwar public housing architectural model—no windows, drab brown bricks, dreariness. There’s a slightly whimsical touch to the roof, though, which is ringed with parapets, giving the building a castlelike quality. Problem is, the roof in no way prevents water entering any part the building when it rains.

On a summer visit, the cheering squad’s practice mats were soaked to ruination during a recent rainstorm. While the mats have since been replaced, many parts of the of the linoleum gym floor show water damage; they’re stained brown, and the tiles are warped. Water comes through the gym roof at the corners, where you can see more brown stains. Blackwell says a pipe in a closet next to the gym gushes “like a fountain” whenever it rains. Water also finds its way into the portion of the building that houses offices and multipurpose rooms.

Contractors recently checked out the roof in advance of planned repairs. It was spongy underfoot, a side effect of frequent soakings.

Stokes says construction to replace the roof will begin in October and renovation of the gym floor will happen next spring.

Stead Recreation Center, 1625 P St. NW

Amenities: Athletic Field, Basketball Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Closed

Matt Waas, 25, and friend Steve Shifrin, 24, are looking for a place to toss a baseball. They’ve brought their mitts to Stead in hopes of getting through the chain-link fence. They prowl around the outside, stepping over dead rats by restaurant Dumpsters in the alley, but all four gates to the field are locked.

Waas and Shifrin understand that the inside part of the playground area is unavailable—it’s being completely reconstructed and was supposed to be completed last month—but they don’t get why the field is closed. A May 16 press release announcing Stead’s closure for construction made it pretty clear: “The athletic field will remain open.”

“It’s just a shame that such a great field near Dupont is always locked up,” says Waas. “Who are they trying to keep out?”

The fellows say they used to see kickball games on the field and they check every week or so to see if it’s open before they give up and head down to the Mall.

When first contacted on the availability of the Stead field, DPR said it was for permit use only. Then, out of nowhere, the agency flung open the field’s gate and declared it open to everyone, permit or not.

Trinidad Recreation Center, 1310 Childress St. NE

Amenities: Gymnasium, Weight Room, Computer Lab, Baseball Diamond, Playground

Bottom Line: Trinidad is Bangin’!

The thugs of Trinidad, whose violent rampages have made headlines in recent months, can’t possibly blame recreational deprivation for their murderous depravity. In 2007, the neighborhood’s center completed a two-year, $6.8-million metamorphosis from one of those dumpy old field houses into a state-of-the-art recreational powerhouse. Shiny new bricks and concrete outside, a nice clean gym, weight room, computer lab, and arts and crafts room inside.

On a recent afternoon, site manager Anthony Higginbotham can find only two unsatisfactory things: the two busted treadmills in the weight room, which he expects to be fixed ASAP. Also, the outside water fountain isn’t working (tsk tsk, District of Columbia). Otherwise, the center is immaculate—right down to the landscaping.

Andrew Huff, a civilian employee of the D.C. Police, and Kathy Zarate from the mayor’s office want to improve a slightly barren-looking patch next to some play equipment. They tell Higginbotham they want to rehab the space on Sept. 11, otherwise known as “Patriot Day.” It’ll be a community-building event with police and neighbors.

Recent news reports based on police statements say the West Coast-based Bloods gang has been selling drugs near the community recreation center. A staffer says she hasn’t noticed any such gang activity near the rec. First she heard of it, she says, was when a young fellow who’d been horsing around with some friends told her, “They mad ’cause I’m with the Bloods.”

“I was like, ‘You ain’t with no Bloods.’”

The next day, she says, the boy told her he was a Crip.

Friendship Recreation Center, 4500 Van Ness St. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamonds, Basketball Courts, Tennis Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Suburban Luxuries in the City!

Visitors may be surprised at first by the significant Hispanic presence in the afternoons at the Friendship Recreation Center, aka Turtle Park, in upper Northwest. All around, women are gabbing in Spanish while children are screaming and playing on the site’s extensive play equipment.

Of course, these Hispanic ladies are all nannies, and the children are all white. The Frienship rec (also known as Turtle Park) boasts not just top-shelf play equipment but also a spray park with a rubberized surface to keep kids’ knees from getting scraped up.

Site manager Enrique Leiva, a Chilean immigrant who’s been with DPR since 1991, approves of the nanny demographic for the learning opportunity it gives the children. “Those nannies are passing the language to the little kids,” he says, adding that lots of tots come up to him and say, “¿Cómo estás?”

Friendship is not one of the more modern rec centers, but it’s nevertheless quite nice, thanks largely to community support. Leiva says the nonprofit neighborhood group Friends of Friendship Park raised $4,000 for the rubber blue surface in the spray park and $9,000 for the tennis courts this year.

Perhaps it’s this intensive community support that explains why Friendship and other rec centers in Ward 3 lack indoor gyms, weight rooms, and computer labs—the city focuses its resources on the needier nabes.

DPR director Clark Ray says his agency decides to upgrade facilities based primarily on usage but also on input from communities and D.C. councilmembers. He says an involved “Friends of” group makes DPR’s job easier. Ray refers to Turtle Park as “a mini utopia.”

Hamilton Recreation Center, 1340 Hamilton St. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Athletic Field, Basketball Courts, Playground, Computer Lab

Bottom line: Good Fences Make

Good Rec Centers

Late on an August afternoon, two teenage boys in wifebeaters and blue jeans are sneaking through a hole in the chain-link fence behind the basketball courts.

“See how this guy’s going through the fence? A fence should work,” says Maria Barry, 38, co-founder of the Friends of 16th Street Heights Parks nonprofit.

The fellows passing through the fence don’t appear to be doing anything particularly devious; they’re just two of a couple dozen teenagers involved in some spirited pickup b-ball on the Hamilton courts. They need a shortcut to wherever they’re going. But Barry says a hole in the fence makes trouble at night for the old tot lot and its spring-mounted purple and blue dinosaurs. No-goodniks sneak in and drink, leaving broken glass and other debris in the children’s play area. Barry says the city has been sluggish in responding to her complaints about the fence.

John Stokes writes: “DPR is working with DCPS (who is responsible for the tot lot), [the police] and community members to come up with solutions surrounding the tot lot at Hamilton.”

Barry has an apt term for the look of the Hamilton rec center’s little field house, which is the same model seen at dozens of D.C. rec center sites: “oversized outhouse.” It’s a one-story red-brick building with a slanty roof and green doors. Except for the ones in Ward 3, these structures always look old and dingy—Hamilton’s has the added eyesore of rusty grating over the windows and lights.

Harrison Recreation Center, 1330 V St. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Basketball Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Lord of the Flies

On Aug. 19, Harrison is locked up. A large group of teenage boys is loitering in the front of the building, banging on the door. For people familiar with youth violence in D.C., this is the most fearsome spectacle. Teenagers, the most dangerously unpredictable demographic in the District, capable of beating up adults for no reason and at any time—and here is a whole pack of them—totally unsupervised! They ate the site manager. He’s dead. They stuck his head on a pole.

Alas, the boys say whoever was in charge had left two hours ago to go to the store and never came back. They’re not banging on the door in anger. They’re making music, singing about chicks over an improvised drumbeat.

A 16-year-old in blue jeans and a gray button-down T-shirt is the lead singer. The lyrics are about how he wants a good girlfriend—preferably, a girl who fucks. Two of his friends, 13 and 14, provide backup harmonies and percussion.

DPR spokesman John Stokes says Harrison closed early that day “due to a staff scheduling conflict.”

Volta Park, 3300 Q St. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground, Pool

Bottom line: It’s G-town!

The Volta Park Recreation Center, formerly known as the Georgetown Recreation Center, is a model of how community support can make a public facility. The on-site flora is phenomenal. The Friends of Volta Park neighborhood nonprofit and the Georgetown Garden Club are active stewards of the on-site “all native” flora, such as columbines and various perennials.

The Volta Park rec center occupies a city block and is surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. Entering from the Q Street side, one is struck by the way the plant life separates and secludes different sections of the park, giving it a private, country-club atmosphere. You hear splashing from the pool, kids playing in the tot area, the fwop of tennis balls—but all you see is these pretty plants.

Despite the niceness of the G-town rec, it’s got two busted water fountains. The one by the tennis courts is filled with cigarette butts.

Raymond Recreation Center, 915 Spring Road NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Athletic Field, Basketball Courts, Tennis Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Help This Place

Tucked behind the Raymond Elementary School near the Petworth Metro station, the Raymond rec center seems like a forgotten place. To get there, you have to walk around the school, with broken glass underfoot, to get to the steps leading up to the little building and its neglected courts and athletic fields. Debris sits on the field: litter, a traffic cone, an old chair, a tire or two. The building itself is surrounded by trash and has been vandalized with spray paint.

If you get dirty here, you can’t get clean. There’s no soap or paper towels in the men’s room. Instead, there’s another traffic cone and an abandoned pair of jean shorts sitting on a radiator next to the urinal.

DPR spokesman Stokes writes that Raymond will get some improvements soon, such as new water fountains and resurfaced basketball courts. There is also funding available in the fiscal 2009 budget for improvements to the building. “While no specifics on the scope of said improvements is available at this time,” Stokes writes, “DPR will begin the planning and community feedback process in late Spring, 2009.”

Hillcrest Recreation Center, 3100 Denver St. SE

Amenities: Tennis Courts, Playground, Weight Room, Gymnasium, Putting Green, Computer Lab

Bottom line: Putting Green!

The Hillcrest recreation center rivals Volta Park for the award for Most Reminiscent of a Country Club. It doesn’t have the fab flora, but it’s got more fancy stuff on its amenities list, including a dance studio and horseshoes. And Hillcrest is the only D.C. rec center with a putting green. The green is a patch of fake turf in the corner of a large grass field. Hillcrest is one of those parts of the city that is indistinguishable from the suburbs. Detached houses, perfect lawns—but not much to do. So it seems appropriate that the area has a well-outfitted rec center.

Fort Stanton Recreation Center, 1812 Erie St. SE

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Athletic

Field, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Swimming Pool

Bottom Line: A Nice Place to Visit

The field house at Fort Stanton looks like an abandoned circus tent. It’s this funny round dome with a point on top, and there’s (what else?) a traffic cone and some debris sitting on it, baking in the sun.

Listless teens lounge inside. One tells this reporter his friend wants to play checkers, but the friend insists that he does not.

DPR began construction on a new baseball diamond for Fort Stanton in July, to be completed next spring. The field will feature bermudagrass, a variety that imposes some interpretive problems visually. A DPR release warns that while the grass will become more whitish-brown during the dormant season than other grasses, the hue is a healthy sign for this particular species. Currently, the baseball field at Fort Stanton is a light shit-brown color, because it’s all raggedy and dug-up.

North of the pool, you find several sets of rusty outdoor exercise equipment—rubber and metal doohickeys suspended from splintery wood poles. Some of the hanging metal hoops look appropriate for “enhanced interrogation” a la Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib.

Barry Farm Recreation Center, 1230 Sumner Road SE

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: kill u

Barry Farm looks old and beat-up on the outside—it’s the typical fieldhouse—but it’s got charm inside, and it’s neat and clean. A staffer inside makes lunch for kids who stop by and offers to do the same for this reporter.

This rec has lots of outdoor space, with a good-looking baseball diamond, nice play equipment, and a pool. There’s a gazebo with the words kill u in red spraypaint on the concrete floor. If the initials B.F.C. next to the threat stand for “Barry Farm Crew,” well, that’s a gang that’s been around since at least 1991, according to newspaper stories. Living history!

Congress Heights Recreation Center, 100 Randle Pl SE

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Free Ice Cream

On a recent afternoon three boys in football gear run over to the Congress Heights rec center after practice. They say they live nearby—this is their backyard. The site manager sees them coming, goes inside the tiny field house, and comes back out with a cardboard box of orange Minute Maid ice cream treats, which are immediately devoured. The rec may be old and dinky, but free Minute Maid goodies—that’s serving the community.

Kennedy Recreation Center, 1401 7th Street NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground, Gymnasium, Weight Room, Computer Lab

Bottom Line: Big Brother Is Watching You Have A Nice Time

The Kennedy Recreation Center building in Shaw is a stately red-brick cube. In addition to being a good place for recreating oneself, Kennedy makes a fantastic backdrop for D.C. politicos holding a press conference to announce the truce of warring block-huggers—as Mayor Adrian Fenty and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans did in June 2007.

On an early evening this summer, Thomas McMillan, 46, is shooting pool with two friends. They’re playing on the good table—the other is totally ratty-looking, dirty and with torn felt. McMillan’s calling his shots and sinking them.

“Could use a better one,” McMillan says of the table. But it’s good enough that he comes to Kennedy to shoot pool every day, he says, and he’s been coming every day for the past year and a half.

There is a white surveillance camera mounted on one corner of the gym, peering out at the playground, basketball courts, and baseball field. For those paying attention, maybe it serves as a reminder that the inter-crew truce brokered by city-funded nonprofits and trumpeted by politicos here didn’t hold. DPR is one of several agencies whose network of surveillance cameras is linked to a central monitoring facility operated by the District government.

Langdon Park Community Center, 2901 10th St. NE

Amenities: Basketball Courts, Tennis Courts, Swimming Pool, Gymnasium, Playground, Skate Park

Bottom Line: Old but Good

The Langdon Park rec center has lots of stuff, but the indoor facility isn’t nearly as shiny and new as local residents would like. The Creamsicle-orange paint job gives it a ’70s vibe. The slats of the indoor basketball court look warped, and a staffer points to water damage in two places. Local ANC representative Patricia Brown-Daniels says it’s not fair that some neighborhoods get fancy upgrades while Langdon Park is passed over.

DPR spokesman Stokes says things will get nicer soon. “A contractor is on board and construction on a new playground will commence in the fall of 2008,” Stokes writes. “A planning and design process will begin for the center in 2009.”

Banneker Community Center, 2500 Georgia Ave. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Multipurpose Athletic Field, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground, Weight Room, Computer Lab

Bottom Line: Track Not Ready for Olympians

Banneker is a beast. It’s got lots of amenities, and during a recent visit, they are all in use, except for the game rooms, despite their distinctive vaulted ceilings. And except for the track.

If you can call it that. For years, a circular shape is the only thing that the Banneker “track” had in common with a track. DPR hopes to have a three-lane, poured-rubber replacement completed by November.

Parkview Community Center, 693 Otis Pl. NW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Basketball Courts, Playground, Outdoor Pool

Bottom Line: Nobody Upstairs

The inside area at the Parkview rec center has a pool table, a fab Ping Pong table, and a huge TV in its main room. An upstairs area is mysteriously closed during a reporter’s visit. Pictures, the reporter is told, are forbidden.

The men’s locker room for the pool is super funky. Parts of the floor are soaking wet even though nobody has been using the pool for a few hours. At the moment this reporter happened to visit, the bottom of the pool is covered with dirt. A grown-up on the adjacent playground can be heard admonishing children for dirtying the pool the previous day.

Kalorama Recreation Center, 1875 Columbia Road NW

Amenities: Basketball Courts, Playground

Bottom Line: Man’s Best Friend

A measure of the niceness of the Kalorama Recreation Center is that it’s a site of the modern classic D.C. neighborhood struggle: Who gets priority on the green grassy space—humans or dogs? Most of the rec is a sprawling, sloping park shaded by nice big trees. It’s a great place to take the dog for a walk.

“When I came here in January, it was crazy,” says site manager John Borgess. “Poop everywhere.”

Borgess says there’s less poop since he’s put scoop signage throughout the park. At least one pile remains, though, when this reporter visits. The other dog issue is leashes, which are required at all times by a city law that some owners choose to ignore.

There’s just not enough Kalorama rec to go around. Borgess says there’s a five-year waiting list for a plot in the community garden, and that he recently prevailed in a “Mexican standoff” with homeless people who slept in the bushes on the southeastern side of the park.

Marie Reed Recreation Center, 2200 Champlain St. NW

Amenities: Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground, Gymnasium, Indoor Pool

Bottom Line: Should’ve Listened to Jane Jacobs

The aura of neighborhood love that makes Kalorama so nice is somewhat missing from nearby Marie Reed. The field is scraggly and the basketball courts are often slippery with sandy grit. The breezeway from Champlain Street is one of the most dreadful pieces of cityscape in the District, a great pedestrian deterrent that’s home to a stinking Dumpster and frequent nocturnal muggings.

Inside, the gym is locked up, but the indoor pool is open for business and getting lots of it, with swimmers sharing lanes. The men’s locker room is dank and desolate with rusty lockers.

King Greenleaf Recreation Center, 201 N St. SW

Amenities: Baseball Diamond, Multipurpose Athletic Field, Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Playground, Computer Lab, Weight Room, Gymnasium

Bottom Line: Your Excellence

King Greenleaf might be the king of the city’s commitment to attractive, newfangled architecture in its public play places. The building has a curvy brick façade and slanty floor-to-ceiling windows. Greenleaf is so attractive that it was suitable as a backdrop for an Obama-Fenty campaign event last year. Hope!

When a reporter visited on Labor Day, the Greenleaf gym was being resurfaced. But except for this work, some untidiness in the weight room and multi-purpose room, and a cracked window, Greenleaf appears to be holding up well since the big remodeling completed there in 2005.