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On a Thursday afternoon, some two dozen Girl Scouts show up for their meeting at the Arthur Capper Recreation Center. Next to them, another 20 kids do their homework, perched at the center’s long tables. Occasionally, one will wander into the big walk-in closet. It used to be stuffed with toys and games, but now it’s down to a few puzzles, some construction paper, and other odds and ends. Dust has settled on the shelves.
The kids of the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Homes have been coming to the rec center, at 5th and K Streets SE, for more than 50 years. But at the end of April, the center is scheduled to close, thanks to the redevelopment of the public-housing complex under the federal HOPE VI program. In four or five years, the site will be occupied by a new, mixed-income neighborhood, including a “brand-new, wonderful community center,” according to D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) consultant Adrienne Todman.
Residents will be moving out of the Capper and Carrollsburg communities in stages within the next two years. But the rec center, which sits on land where a new senior center is slated to go, will be shutting down sooner. The closure was originally scheduled for Feb. 28; center administrators gave away the games that month in anticipation. After two dozen kids, organized by the advocacy group Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg (FRACC), gathered in protest, DCHA Executive Director Michael P. Kelly pushed back the closure for 60 days. Even without the toys, the children keep coming to hang out with the adults working there and play with the center’s antiquated computers.
“It’s important that the rec is there,” says 13-year-old Latia Dixon, who does homework at the center and attended summer camp there. “It’s a place where I feel safe and protected.”
But the reprieve can’t be extended, DCHA officials say. The rec center isn’t due to be knocked down until December, but Todman says crews need several months to prepare the building for demolition.
“The rec center fits into a much bigger picture,” says Larry Dwyer, director of the DCHA’s Office of Planning and Development. “It’s not that we’re unsympathetic to the residents, but we’ve got to balance their needs with the redevelopment priorities.”
If the center has to be knocked down, residents say, they need an alternative nearby. At a March 27 community forum, Kelly told residents that the DCHA was committed to uninterrupted rec-center service in the neighborhood. But responsibility for relocating the center lies with the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department, which has posted notices saying that kids should visit one of three other rec centers.
Those sitesthe Hine, Randall, and Watkins Recreation Centersare all at least 10 blocks from Capper, across major intersections. The DCHA has offered to provide bus service to them, but residents argue that such an arrangement would defeat the purpose of providing a close-to-home haven for neighborhood kids.
“No one’s going to go [to the other centers],” says Rose Oliphant, a resident and volunteer with the neighborhood advocacy group Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg (FRACC). “If they close up the rec, kids are going to be out in the streets, gathering in bunches, and when they do that they’re up to no good.”
“We’re not planning a new space for the Arthur Capper center,” says parks department spokesperson Terry Lee.
Residents and activists maintain that the center’s closure is part of an effort by housing officials to make the neighborhood less desirable, thereby making it easier to relocate residents. “It’s just another way to get people out of the neighborhood,” says Anu Yadav, a rec-center volunteer and FRACC member.
Dwyer says that allegation is “absolutely not true.” Susan Popkin, an Urban Institute expert on HOPE VI, says she believes such a strong-arm approach is unlikely.
Still, residents insist that keeping a rec center is key to preserving their neighborhood. “We’re not taking the 60 days,” says Debra Frazier, a Capper resident whose two kids use the center. “They’re trying to give us another reason to move out as quickly as possible. We’re pressing for a rec facility here as long as there is one human left in this neighborhood.” CP