For Myra Freeman and her 2-year-old grandson, Lance, the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw looks like an Eden of horseplay. On an idyllic Sunday afternoon, kids run around the ample space surrounding the brand-new glass-fronted building at 7th and P Streets NW: playing tackle football, shooting hoops on a freshly paved court, and flitting about on the wood chips below a gleaming jungle gym.
But when Freeman tries to enter the paradise, all she sees is a series of locked gates: By decree of the District government, Sunday is the rec center’s day of rest.
“Because it’s a new structure, the way it’s designed the entire facility is gated, so when the [indoor] center is closed they close the entire facility,” says D.C. Parks and Recreation spokesperson Terry Lee. Lee says the lockdown stems from community concern that “nonpositive recreational activities” would take place in the playground after hours.
Freeman is more worried about wasting a beautiful day. “It’s kind of strange, because that’s when families are free,” Freeman says. “The basketball courts and tennis courts aren’t open either? I mean, this is Sunday.”
The closure doesn’t mean that the playground is stilled. It just means that access is restricted to those both brave and spry enough to find a way around or over the iron-bar fencemaking Sundays effectively kids-only affairs. On this afternoon, cavorting 10-year-olds outnumber supervisory grandmothers about 20 to zero inside the fence.
Freeman looks skeptically at one nontraditional entrance: a 2-foot-wide piece of plywood propped up at a 45-degree angle against the 6-and-a-half-foot-high gate on O Street. “I’m not going up there,” she says, shaking her head at the slightly bowed incline. Her grandson isn’t so cautious. Lance toddles halfway up the improvised ramp, then slips and falls on his stomach. “Come on, Lancelot. We’re going over to Dupont,” Freeman says, reaching down to grab his hand as they walk toward the more accessible Kalorama play area.
Lee says that within a month, Freeman will be able to waltz in through Kennedy’s gates any day of the week. Parks and Rec, he says, is moving to have more facilities open every day, with Kennedy scheduled to be unlocked from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. In the meantime, Lee says, park rangers will be stopping by the playground to make sure kids aren’t getting in when the gates are locked.
On this Sundaywith no rangers in sightthey’re not having much trouble getting in, or out. A few minutes after Freeman walks away, one young girl inside the park employs the O Street ramp to boost herself out. Using the top of the board as a step, she pulls herself up the fence and over the short tines at the top. As she hangs halfway out, two friends tease her by flipping the ramp over, then strategically placing a wet green lollipop where she wants to step down.
When the girl does get her feet on the ramp, she starts to bounce on it. As the plywood flexes, another girl joins in the jumping, until their combined weight collapses the makeshift trampoline. The climber is left hanging from the fence top, feet swinging in the air. Unworried, she jumps down, and the three run away across O Street.
A block away, on the corner of 6th and O Streets, four boys try a different escape route. Here, a stepped brick terrace inside the playground effectively raises the ground level, allowing for a shorter trip over the fence. The two older-looking boys scramble over easily, then offer advice to the remaining pair. Some words”I got on the big one ’cause it’s easier,” says a boy in a red T-shirt, pointing out the highest of the stepsare more encouraging than others. “Lick my boner,” mutters a kid in blue.
The smallest one goes third, lingering on the top of the fence before mustering the courage to jump down. As soon as he hits the ground, he and the other two start running, leaving their fourth companion behind. “I ain’t gonna waste my life waiting for you,” yells the red-shirted one as they run across 6th Street and into the ABC Grocery.
“Is it gonna take long?” cries the straggler. He squeezes his face between the bars, eyes pointed at the convenience store. The kids emerge after a few minutes, their hands filled with small bags of Utz potato chips. But it’s hard to climb back in, they soon find, while holding a bag of chips. When they hand the bags to their friend on the inside, he opens one up and starts eating.
Minutes later, outside on P Street, five children are working on the locked gate in front of the center’s parking lot. While the others futilely push at it, a boy with dreadlocks gets on his stomach and slithers through the 1-foot gap beneath the fence. When he pops up, the four others drop down and imitate his style. Three slide under easily, but a sweet-faced girl in stripes runs into trouble. When the other girls make fun”Ha ha, you got stuck!”she looks crushed and pushes herself back out.
“My little sister can’t come inI’m going out,” the boy with dreadlocks announces, chest puffed out. Just then, one of the girls comes running back from the jungle-gym area, pumping her arm. “The girl just told me how to get in,” she yells. “She said, ‘Pull this thing up.’” The kids grab for the latch. The gate is still chained at the top, but by unlatching it and pushing toward the street, they’re able to displace it into a V shape, making the crawl space a tiny bit bigger.
The laggard girl swallows her pride and gets back on her stomach. Halfway through, she gets stuck again. The other kids push down on the butt pocket of her jeans, and she’s able to wriggle through. As they run toward the playground equipment together, victorious, one of the girls interrupts the all-out sprint to think of the challenges ahead: “How are we gonna get back out?” she shouts. CP