Neil Albert, the recently nominated director for the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), must have been experiencing a temporary loss of sanity earlier this year when he told a D.C. Council oversight committee eager to lay cash at his feet that his budget was sufficient, thank you very much.
Even now, as Albert sits for an interview with LL, he asserts that “the mayor’s budget is a fair allocation of the resources that exist.” Which is yet another example of the DPR director-designee’s masterful execution of the sidestep. Truth is, Albert needs moneygoogobs of it. His parks department is afflicted with old, deteriorating facilities, aging personnel in equally bad shape, and a reputation for poor performance.
“The whole department has been dysfunctional for a long time,” says Steve Coleman, head of Parks for People, an advocacy group credited with initiating the remarkable 1990 rehabilitation of Malcolm X/Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW.
LL thinks Albert took his mind-boggling don’t-need-money position mostly because he knew that to say to Mayor-in-Wanting Kevin Chavous, head of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, that he needed more money than had been requested in Anthony A. Williams’ fiscal 2002 budget would have invited a back-room mayoral reprimandand would have been a shaky start to his tenure as DPR director.
The DPR supposedly became a priority mayoral agenda item last year following screams from residents and the media about unmown ballfields, unimplemented programs, and unpaid summer workers. But the department remains in trouble. What LL discovered on a tour of the city’s parks and recreation centers conducted last week, on the eve of the busy summer season, was criminal. Some facilitiessquat, concrete single-story bunkers, built more than 20 years agoresembled jails or run-down juke joints in backwater Southern towns. Others were wastelands smothered by dirt and lacking the slightest hint of landscaping. And even those centers that managed to offer the promise of being great facilities frequently had their grounds littered with broken glass and mounds of trash.
Furthermore, in contradiction to hours posted on the doors and on the DPR’s official Web site, several centers should have been open when LL went to visit, but they weren’tleaving her and some residents waiting on the outside to wonder what was going on. Where a center was open, there weren’t sufficient personnelusually just one or two people on duty. And LL caught some of those workers feeding their faceschicken, club sandwiches, corn chipsor engaged in private gossip sessions, or simply uninvolved with the children around them.
At the Emery Recreation Center in Northwest, just off Georgia Avenue, the director was preparing a sample for an arts-and-crafts class that was not in session while several young teens played a game of ping-
pong and others idled outside. No one from the DPR attempted to invite them inside or otherwise engage them in meaningful activities. Youths at the Parkview Recreation Center in Northwest were left to prepare for a talent show without any supervision or assistance from the center personnel; the assistant director sat outside. At Langdon, in the Northeast Brookland community, the engagement of center personnel with youth wasn’t much better, although at least that director and an assistant were inside the building. A few centers needed to have their grass cut, although none of the ballfields had grass that could be called knee-high. LL acknowledges all blessingshowever small.
Many parks-and-recreation advocates don’t blame Albert for the lousy state of his agency. They say he is making strides where his predecessor, former DPR Director Robert Newman, stalled. “Neil is trying to keep in touch with folks, but he is surrounded by individuals who are reluctant to do the same thing, or people who don’t want to promote the director and the department’s good ideas,” says Rick Sowell, a longtime Ward 5 neighborhood activist.
“[He’s] not a park professional. Initially, I thought that would have been a liability,” says Coleman. “But the way he’s played it, he’s used that seeming liability to open the department to change in a way [Newman] never did.”
“Most of the people aren’t trained, or they don’t live in the city and they don’t understand or care about how important these centers are to the community,” says Willie Flowers, a Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner who also coaches a baseball team in the Satchel Paige Little League. “The real good [center directors] don’t have enough resources to really stretch.”
LL also thinks Albert is a likeable man who is seemingly interested in doing the right thing. But that’s not enough to reform a deeply troubled parks department riddled with inherent inequities. For example, as LL wrote last week, the city has not hesitated to lavish huge amounts of money on former First Lady Cora Masters Barry’s pet projectthe Southeast Tennis and Learning Center (STLC)giving the false impression that the DPR is fully invested in providing leisure-time activities for its residents. In reality, the STLC, and the government’s $4.7 million investment in it, is the product of naked politics.
The mayor and other elected officials may be happy that they have appeased critics by building the STLC, but the project comes at the expense of other neighborhoods that for years have been asking for assistance to repair their centers or spruce up their parks. For every STLC, there is a Congress Heights, a Turkey Thicket, or a Barry Farms. Many of these facilities lack strong, well-connected citizen advisory boards that can tap corporate contributors such as Verizon or Microsoft, as was the case with the STLC. Consequently, neglected facilities and the residents who must rely on them are at the mercy of an inattentive and underfunded government agency, laden with many employees who long ago lost their enthusiasm for their jobs and are merely counting the days until retirement.
Last week, LL accompanied Coleman and Albert on a tour of Watts Brancha 1.4-mile nature and bike trail in Northeastand the failures of the DPR were as ubiquitous as the pollen. LL saw rusted, burned, and abandoned vehicles blocking the trail; tires and toilets cluttering the stream; and evidence of wholesale dumping by both commercial enterprises and citizens who simply don’t give a damn. The property, including what could be lovely stairway entrances and bridges, hadn’t been cleaned, it seemed, for at least a decade. Drug dealers, prostitutes, and other people of ill repute had found a haven in the backwoods, protected by mounds of dead tree branches and garbage bags.
“Ever since the park was transferred to the District, it’s been a basket case,” says Coleman. The property belonged to the National Park Service until 1973.
Coleman and Albert dream aloud about restoring Watts Branch to its original glory. This week, they plan to stage a press event to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the dedication of the park by former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. They hope to establish a “public-private partnership” to address soil erosion, organize a massive cleanup, and create landscaping. But LL finds it hard to believe in miracles. Besides, she knows the ritual: The summer pledges of allegiance from elected officials to provide quality programs for the city’s young people get short shrift by the fall.
To his credit, Albert doesn’t deny the horrific state of his agency. “You’re not discovering anything we don’t know exists,” he says. But he does take exception to charges that new money is being sucked by the STLC, although the facility has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, one of the largest of any of the DPR’s centers. The DPR’s fiscal 2001 budget is $26.4 million. The mayor’s proposed 2002 budget included a $1 million increase, but the council approved even more, for a total of about $29 million.
Albert says there is capital money in next year’s budget to improve many of the city’s antiquated recreation centers. But he says that if the department doesn’t pay attention to the STLC, “in another five or 10 years down the road, it will be in the same position as Congress Heights and Barry Farms.”
He agrees that maintenance of recreation facilities is a problem: “We have 23 maintenance employees for 800 acres of parklands, 151 buildings, 98 basketball and tennis courts, 42 swimming pools, 67 ballfields, 71 playgrounds….You do the math.” He says he has been pressing for months a request to purchase trash trucks that will help improve maintenance. But the process is being held up in the city’s procurement office.
As to the staffing problem, Albert says it’s one of his greatest frustrations. He says many workers don’t have “leisure-services credentials,” and the department has been unable to recruit fresher, more experienced professionals because of its pay scalethe current starting salary for center managers is $23,000 per year; maintenance workers earn about $21,000. Albert calls the staff-to-youth ratio at centers “abysmal. The department has been understaffed for the longest while.” In a few weeks, the department will hire 768 employees for its summer programs. But LL knows that the DPR will retain very few of these seasonal hires.
Despite the difficulties, Albert asserts that there have been improvements. He notes that the department now has a regular grass-cutting schedule; maintenance workers have already begun to prepare swimming pools for their official opening, later this month; and officials have begun the procurement processes necessary to ensure that goods and services for summer programs are delivered on time. “There are some significant changes that have occurred,” he adds. But Albert’s list of improvements sounds like the kinds of things the agency should be expected to do as a matter of course. No celebration is deserved.
“We are systematically chipping away at the problem,” Albert says. “We are working with decades of disinvestment. We are not going to fix all of the problems overnight.”
If LL had a dollar for every time she has heard that excuse from a District government official, she would have more than enough money to repair the city’s recreation centers, design meaningful programs, and get the parks landscapedwith or without Albert and his crew of on-the-job retirees. Jonetta Rose Barras
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