“Hey, guys, let’s go hang out at the community center.”

When was the last time you said this to your gang? Never? Well, why not?

Here’s another one: “I am who I am today thanks to the good old community center.” Any of your friends laid that on you lately?

The community center is a wonderful thing, in theory anyway. An idea hatched in the power-to-the-people ’60s, the community center was supposed to feed the mind and soul, generating intergenerational mingling and cementing the social bonds of fragmented urban communities. Distinct from recreation centers, community centers would offer not just sports but also wholesome family events, meeting rooms, day care, after-school programs, and mind-building educational activities such as photography and various arts and crafts.

But here’s the reality: On a Friday, Yvette Weaver and a volunteer, Georgia M. Dickens, sit at a picnic table at the Parkview Community Center in its namesake neighborhood with a calendar in front of them, trying to think of activities for the center to host. “The operative word here is ‘community,’” says Weaver, a recreation specialist who’s in charge of the center tonight. But getting the community to show up presents something of a problem. Inside, about a dozen kids hang out by a single pingpong table, but otherwise the all-ages center is empty. “It’s difficult for people to know to come by without coming by first,” Weaver laments, looking out over the empty basketball court.

Especially rare is anyone who’s over 21 or who’s not a table-tennis aficionado. Weaver says their attempts at an adult night with karaoke didn’t turn out too well last year. At the beginning of the year, six or eight people showed up for a couple of monthly meetings of the over-35 group, but the gatherings soon petered out

It’s a no-brainer why no one wants to go to community centers. Architecturally, they put the fallout in “fallout shelter.” Kenilworth-Parkside Community Center, opened in 1973 near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, is still a bomb shelter, even if the bars over the doors are painted a happy orange. In fact, its exterior features so much tan brick and so few windows that it’s hard to tell when the joint is open. It’s a come-hither look only if Soviet bombers are overhead.

It’s no wonder that a teen in an oversize white T-shirt and jeans hanging out at Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE smiles and says his “schedule is too full” for the community center. He and two friends are hanging out in front of a storefront fried-chicken joint.

Across the Anacostia River, the ’60s-vintage Langdon Park Community Center building has an outdoor amphitheater. Its small, raised stage of hexagonal concrete tiles sits in front of rows of wooden benches that could seat at least 200 people. The benches are painted red, orange, and yellow, and there’s not a soul on them.

“Amphitheaters just never work,” says Ted Pochtor, chief of planning for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. “As if we had lots of little drama groups working around the city. Of course, it would be great if we did.” Pochtor says the National Park Service built Langdon Park and turned it over to the D.C. government when the District won home rule in 1973.

Maybe another reason the amphitheater is growing grass where spectators should be is the cornball touchy-feely propaganda it has for a stage set. On the stage’s steel backdrop is a painted row of smiling children in choir robes, their arms crossed in front of them. We all know the standard community-center mural—call it the “all-together-now” school of civic hopes. It paints a vision of everything you’d like, but nothing that is real.

Clearly the real young people in Langdon Park’s neighborhood are smarter than the happily singing children in the mural: “What the hell is this?” reads graffiti written in black.

On a Saturday afternoon, Langdon Park’s building is as empty as its amphitheater, but inside, in the northwest corner, a “Darkroom in use” sign is illuminated over a door. Aha! Someone is here, at last.

But no, it’s merely a broken light. Nobody develops pictures here. “If we could get a photography teacher up here, that would be great,” says Ron Rice, an assistant to the center’s manager. He thinks the last photographer was here a few years ago. Inside the darkroom are two impressive-looking enlargers and storage from miscellaneous other projects. The well-equipped darkroom is now only a closet.

I press Rice for examples of nonrecreational or non-kids-oriented community activities. There’s the computer room (most of the centers have them, and they’re such a see-what-I’ve-done-for-you-lately feature that each center’s Web page announces the number of computers and the type of link it has to the Internet), but there’s no computer instructor, so it doesn’t really count, he says. In fact, every example he thinks of involves kids, sports, or going someplace other than his community center.

But even if community centers are dead, the outdated rhetoric behind them lives on. Just listen to Patrick Menasco, president of a group struggling against community opposition to build a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community center at Stead Park near Dupont Circle. “There’s a lot of strength, a lot of betterment, when people are brought together,” says Menasco, an attorney at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm in D.C. “We need institutions to draw us together, not pull us apart, even for one night.”

What Menasco is talking about drawing together isn’t the city, isn’t a ward, isn’t even a neighborhood. “It might surprise you, but even the GLBT community tends to be fractured. It’s a struggle to get gay-rights leaders to come together.” Well then, sounds like we need a building to solve that problem!

Straight people will be able to use the GLBT community center, too, Menasco adds, and the park’s land around it will “probably continue to be managed and regulated by Parks and Recreation,” so that no one can be excluded.

That’s all well and good, but the problem of the community center is that people exclude themselves. There is an exception—Chevy Chase Community Center offers popular classes in ballet, photography, needlecraft, and telescope-making. Elsewhere, however, people don’t show up to develop pictures or to put on a play. Parks and Recreation is doing something about this: It’s called giving up.

The city is opening a wave of brand-new neighborhood centers, and they’re all “recreation centers.” The Emery, North Michigan Park, and Kennedy Recreation Centers all opened in 2003. In the next months, three more will open, and in January, so will the Takoma Aquatic Center. The new centers leave aside the wishful thinking of darkrooms and specialized facilities that end up unused. Instead, they have classrooms and general-use rooms available for groups that want to use them. The Columbia Heights Community Center is slated to open next summer, with recreation facilities, multi-use rooms, and a recording studio. But according to Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Terry Lee, it uses the word “community” instead of “recreation” only “because it’s not attached to a ballfield.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Joe Rocco.