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Back in the late 1960s, residents of North Michigan Park began asking the city to expand their small recreation center. The neighborhood was populated with so many young children that the facilitywhich to this day includes a baseball diamond, a kiddie pool, and a small brown brick rec roomwasn’t big enough to meet the community’s needs. North Michigan Park, located in Northeast just a few blocks from Prince George’s County, was considered one of the preferred D.C. addresses for young, middle-class black families looking for yards and open spaces.
Each April, neighborhood leaders would trudge downtown to plead for additional funds for the recreation center’s expansion. And every year, they’d head home with sore throats, many promises, and no dough.
Until this year. After three decades and six White House occupants, the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks has pledged $2.1 million toward a new North Michigan Park Recreation Center. “The timing must have been right this year,” remarks Joseph Bowser, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area.
Too bad the neighbors don’t want it anymore.
Sometime during its 30-year wait for a larger facility, neighbors say, North Michigan Park outgrew its need for recreation. The kids have grown up, gotten married, and even started families of their ownoften elsewhere. The neighborhood is now composed mostly of older residents, empty-nesters, and grandparents who use the facility only when their grandchildren stop by for a weekend visit.
And the community’s distaste for new recreation opportunities is anything but passive. In the past few weeks, Cynthia Reid and a handful of other North Michigan Park activists have been visiting their neighbors door-to-door, collecting signatures to protest the D.C. Council-funded proposal to build a bigger and better rec facility on the grounds of the old one.
It hasn’t been tough. Upward of 150 neighbors have signed the petition with only a handful of refusals so far. Many of the signers are concerned that a bigger facility and enhanced programming will just attract traffic and more kids with too much time on their hands into the neighborhood. James Green, a North Michigan Park resident who has helped circulate the petition, says that most of his neighbors have eagerly signed on. “In fact, most people tell me that if the rec center could go away, they would be in favor of spending some money to do that,” he notes.
Reid, Green, et al. don’t oppose basketball and bingo; they’ve just had enough of the crowd that flocks to the rec center. Over the past 15 years, they say, the center has attracted drug dealers and assorted ne’er-do-wells who set up shop in the shadows of the building and in the wooded area beyond the overgrown ball field.
They say that the primary park pastimes right now include loud partying, fighting, and a gunshot every now and then that keep the neighbors up until the wee hours. In the morning, the neighbors clean up the assorted remnants of the previous night’s festivitiesusually fast-food containers and drug paraphernalia. The neighbors think that an enhanced park facility would just make life all the more comfortable for the shadier element that headquarters there.
The push against the park has taken neighborhood leaders and city officials by surprise. “We are not interested in shoving anything down anybody’s throat,” says Larry Brown, a spokesman for the Department of Recreation and Parks. Brown stresses that the new facility would be multipurpose and that many of the activities would be geared toward those with a touch of gray. “Recreation helps build thriving neighborhoods,” Brown says.
Brown’s assurances don’t comfort locals like James Glasgow, whose house sits right next to the rec center. Glasgow heard what sounded like an entire clip of ammunition fired from the rec center grounds three weekends ago. North Michigan Park residents say the 5th District police drive around the area in response to their 911 calls, but officers rarely leave their cars to investigate. “We look forward to the rain and the cold weather to keep folks off the property,” says Glasgow.
“There were drug dealers, drug sales, and various other minor incidents occurring,” says Captain Michael McGraw, Sector 1 commander for the 5th District. But, McGraw argues, a heightened awareness of community complaints by patrolling officers has helped cleaned things up. “The majority of gunshots are the result of criminals test-firing weapons before purchasing them,” McGraw explains, noting that the neighborhood was until recently home to a gun dealer.
At a recent meeting of the North Michigan Park Civic Association, five youngsters spoke up about how much the new facility would mean to them. Neighbors branded them imposters. “They brought in some young people from elsewhere to speak in favor of building this facility,” says Glasgow. “They weren’t even young kids. I think they were college students, and it sounded like they had been told what to say.”
And God forbid that those youngsters round up their friends to visit an upgraded North Michigan Park center. “We don’t need to bring in outsiders,” says Glasgow. “When you have indoor basketball and midnight basketball, then you get a lot of kids with boombox radios, hanging around bringing in trash.”
Despite mounting local opposition, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas remains supportive of the plan. “It’s just a turf battle waged by a small group of people who don’t even know what’s good for the neighborhood,” Thomas says. “I ain’t too worried about these people.”
A better place to spend the funds, say the neighbors, is Turkey Thicket, a recreation center in neighboring Brookland. The demographics support a center at Brookland, they say. And they add that the plan would cost nothing because they want the city to sell the rec center property for private development.
“A larger facility is not going to solve the problem,” says Reid. “Parks are nice, but you got to look at where you are putting them.”
Department of Recreation and Parks officials disagree. “Do you realize how many major arteries the children would have to cross to get to Turkey Thicket?” counters Brown. “That would put their lives in danger.”CP