Last spring, the elemantary baseball squad at Garrison Elementary School turned out for practice on its home field at 12th and S Streets NW. It didn’t go too well. Although the field is equipped with a large backstop and has enough room for a long fly ball to center, that’s where its resemblance to a bona fide baseball diamond ends: There are a ditch at third base, a storm drain in the outfield, a trail of cracked asphalt down the left field line, and a mix of pebbles and shards of concrete on the infield. Organizers have shifted most practice sessions to the contiguous blacktop.
“It was hard to pick an angle where there weren’t deep ruts so the kids wouldn’t trip,” says a parent of a Garrison student athlete. “It was pretty discouraging. Then the kids played a game at Friendship Heights field and saw what a real baseball field looked like. They talked about it for weeks.”
Concerned parents could always reseed the field and fill in the ruts, but any overhaul wouldn’t likely last past the next Sunday. That’s when the Metropolitan Baptist Church uses the field as a parking lot for its parishioners. Neighbors say that Metropolitan Baptist’s treatment of the field reflects its larger view of the recently energized Logan Circle community: as one big parking lot for a church with a large suburban congregation.
“That whole school yard is dismal,” says Vermont Avenue resident Andrea Carlson. When Carlson takes her 4-year-old and 17-month-old out to play, she walks right past the Garrison field. “If it was nicer, we would use it.”
Carlson and her neighbors might not resent the arrangement if the church were paying a premium for the space. However, the church rents the lot from the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a mere $5,000 a year. The land-use agreement between the two parties expired at the end of June, but the church has continued to use the property rent-free throughout the summer and has packed the lot on Sundays and weekday evenings this fall.
Officials in the DCPS real estate office say that renewing the agreement is up to the church and the school, which has a new principal this fall. “I don’t go chasing after contracts,” says Veronica Falwell, chief of leasing administration in the real estate office. “We don’t have the staff to go policing these agreements. I told the new principal, if there is any activity, she needs to check on it.”
The school doesn’t need to do much checking to figure out who’s getting the better part of the deal. Every Sunday, the field looks like the parking lot at the state fair, complete with orange cones, parking attendants, and lots of mud. Except for one thing: Members of a 4-H parking detail rarely patrol the fairgrounds in a spotless white Mercedes-Benz. But the uniformed security guard roaming the Metropolitan Baptist Church lot was riding in one last Sunday.
German-engineered security is just one indicator of the wealth and power of Metropolitan Baptist, which is located on R Street, just behind Garrison Elementary. The church is the sanctuary of choice for many of the city’s African-American elite, and its preacher, H. Beecher Hicks Jr., is extremely influential in D.C. politics. When President Clinton decided to remind us last December that he’s a District resident, he chose Metropolitan Baptist’s dais as his bully pulpit. Metropolitan Baptist officials failed to return phone calls.
With the contract in limbo, Garrison neighbors think that it’s a good time to reconsider the terms of the arrangement. “The concern is that the field is not being used by the children,” says Chuck Baxter, president of the Westminster Neighborhood Association. “That is the largest green space in the neighborhood. That would be the ideal space for kids to play ball.”
Carlson, for one, would like to see Metropolitan Baptist formally adopt the local school. “They’ve got a lot of money. I don’t see why they don’t put it to use in their own neighborhood,” she says.CP