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Last winter, the Elks lodge at 1844 3rd St. NW hosted a party. That’s not unusual: According to lodge secretary Ra Wilkins, the Elks sponsor approximately two parties a month, loaning their building to members who host events for family and friends. These events must be approved by the fraternal organization’s leadership, he said; guests are permitted to bring their own booze, and the Elks provide a pair of security guards.
The event on Feb. 3 was a birthday party for a middle-aged woman, Wilkins testified before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Oct. 24. And things got a little out of hand. “They had a photographer,” he said. “It was a group picture. Someone walked across, which caused a verbal dispute.” One man fell, cut his lip, and passed out. “At this time, many of the intoxicated customers started pushing and arguing with each other and the police,” says the report.
According to Wilkins, the patron’s fall was totally unrelated to the argument upstairs, and “it was completely managed. Everyone apologized to each other. When the police arrived, there was no altercation.”
But board member Audrey Thompson called the incident “extremely, extremely disturbing,” expressing the board’s concern that the lodge was behaving more like a rowdy nightclub than the benevolent and protective order that the organization’s name suggests. “You’re definitely going to have to come up with changes. Serious changes,” she told Wilkins and his brothers at the hearing. Otherwise, she said, “somebody is going to get hurt or get killed.”
LeDroit Park Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Myla Moss agreed. “We in the neighborhood have had a perennial problem with the lodge,” she testified, noting that residents have repeatedly complained to the Elks about noise, debris, and parking problems that seem to be caused by the late-night parties. “While they do provide food for the homeless on Sundays and provide school supplies to the Gage Eckington Elementary School, they have made no effort to address peace, order, and quiet,” she said.
The Elks lodge has been in LeDroit Park since 1906. In fact, it’s part of the history that drew Moss to the neighborhood when she moved there in 1999. “I did my research. I wanted to live in historic LeDroit Park,” she says, noting that author Anna J. Cooper, activist Mary Church Terrell, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar all lived there. She calls it “the birthplace of black intelligentsia.”
Columbia Lodge No. 85, home to the local chapter of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, is part of that history. The IBPOEW, a black fraternal organization, was formed at the turn of the 20th century during the Jim Crow era. “It started pre-integration, when the African-American community had to rely on itself,” says Wilkins. “This organization has had to provide a lot of services.”
It still does, Wilkins says, offering formal programs in education, employment training, health services, housing, and community development. Specifically, he says, the Elks’ regional organization has established a $10,000 endowment to the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Delaware State University, dispersing the funds through $1,000 scholarships to students. “We pride ourselves on fellowship,” he says. “It’s like a family.”
A family that knows how to have fun. On weekend nights, Wilkins says, the lodge hosts gatherings for its members. “Friday and Saturday nights are social nights. We open up our social room for financial [dues-paying] members,” he says. On those nights, 15 to 20 people come to listen and dance to jazz, merengue, and salsa until about 2 a.m., Wilkins says. “You must be at least 21 to get in.”
Louise Thundercloud, a neighbor who lives at 2nd and T Streets NW, says she’s been to a few of the parties. “There’s quite a bit of dancing,” she says. She remembers a recent event with about 70 patrons whose ages ranged from their mid-20s to their 80s.
Dina Lewis, however, says the parties don’t sound like a bunch of octogenarians shuffling about. Lewis lives close to the lodge, at 3rd and T Streets, and chairs the public safety committee of the LeDroit Park Civic Association. She says the lodge often hosts parties with “behavior that’s typical of a club.” On those nights, she says, the streets swell with cars bearing Maryland license plates, and “there’s a lot of trash.” Lewis doesn’t know what goes on inside the lodge, but whatever it is, she says, “it manifests itself as people yelling. It manifests itself as people puking.”
Thundercloud, who has lived in LeDroit Park since 1994, calls the neighbors’ complaints ridiculous and says the controversy is really about race and class. “In 2000, we began seeing some real changes,” says Thundercloud, who identifies as black and Indian. “We started seeing more whites. Things were going for $500,000 that used to go for $200,000,” she says. “My problem is, this is mostly an African-American-run business. These people, when they move here, they want to change the rules.…The wealthy blacks are trying to identify with the whites. And that’s stupid.”
Moss, who is black, says that race has nothing to do with it, and that many of the concerned neighbors have lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. “This is about residents who pay very high taxes who want peace and quiet at 3 a.m.”
Wilkins echoes Thundercloud’s sentiments. “We’ve been in LeDroit Park for approximately 92 years,” he says. “For the past five to six years, we’ve been experiencing retaliation. I guess because the demographics have changed because of gentrification.”
Still, he says, he’s hopeful that the issues between the Elks and their neighbors will soon be resolved. ABRA took no action, but the Elks will be holding an open house in November, he says, “to address the neighbors’ concerns, dispel all rumors circulating, and to acclimate the new residents to the goals, objectives, and the history of the lodge.”
After all, Wilkins says, the Elks are eager to move on. “We want to get beyond this, because there’s so much charity we have to do.”
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