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Recreation Helps Define Neighborhoods

Community Involvement Called Critical

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page DZ03

So often, Washington seems a place divided -- federal against local, suburbs against city, east vs. west, black vs. white, rich and poor, public and private. We even have one river for the haves and one for the have-nots.

But Washington is gloriously united in one regard: No matter where we live, no matter our station in life, we are absolutely convinced that the folks on the other side of town have a corner on the city government's attention. It's the people across the park who get the prompt police response, the dependable garbage pickups, the good city jobs. Perhaps the most fervently held belief is the deep-seated notion that Washingtonians across Rock Creek Park from wherever we may live get all the good recreation facilities -- the fields, tracks, gyms, pools and recreation centers -- that everyone expects as a basic perk of citizenship.

The result is a cavalcade of controversies pitting children against old folks, baseball lovers against soccerites, dog owners against moms and toddlers, and on and on -- people squabbling, yelling, demanding, protesting, suing and voting over who gets to play what where.

"These are culture wars," says Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders, discussing the faceoffs that seem to occur in nearly every neighborhood. "It's part of the change in the city. Lots of single people moving in and they need a place to run their dogs, families moving to neighborhoods needing playgrounds, different populations with different needs, and often they clash."

Albert doesn't look like a tough guy: He's lean and supple, a veteran who has survived by mastering one of the world's most notorious bureaucracies. But Albert is a political heavyweight, a prizefighter who rose to his current job last summer after heading the District's Department of Parks and Recreation for three years, and taking the agency from a state of utter dysfunction to a place where it regularly designs and builds impressive facilities that residents love.

Along the way, Albert learned that recreation is an oddly useful guide to the differences that hold this city back, and to the solutions that show the way forward.

When federal money became available to improve Kenilworth Park, the 180-acre open-space facility on the eastern shore of the Anacostia River in Northeast, the city proposed an ambitious expansion of soccer fields to serve the many teams that find it hard to schedule playing time around town. But neighbors of the park protested the plan, citing it as evidence that the District was catering to rich white people and their sports interests.

"The concern was, 'Hey, black people don't play soccer,' " Albert says. "Well, I was born in Guyana, and black people do play soccer." Still, the city worked with neighbors, scaled back the soccer plan from 10 fields to three and, at the neighbors' request, added baseball, softball, football and tennis facilities, as well as a walking track.

Albert recalls showing up for a neighborhood meeting at McLean Gardens in Northwest a couple of years ago to find a room packed with people raring for a fight. They had heard that the city was planning to install a dog run nearby, and the word was that the land would come from the community garden.

"Gardens, Not Dogs," said the signs and chants that greeted him. It was all Albert could do to try to convince the crowd that there was no need for such choice, that no one was seeking to take away the people's gardens.

Whether the issue is dog runs vs. soccer fields in Mount Pleasant (young, single whites vs. Hispanic immigrants), kids' sports vs. fallow open space on a school field in Georgetown (yuppie families vs. old folks), or basketball vs. soccer at Upshur Street Park (longtime black residents vs. Hispanic newcomers), recreation debates are often a convenient way to vent ethnic and economic rivalries.

The vehemence of these battles reflects a commitment to activity that transcends neighborhood, economic and ethnic boundaries. Despite our reputation as Wonkville, with workaholics whose collective factory whistle always blows in the dark, Washington is also a place that plays hard. When foreign dignitaries gather for breakfast at the Watergate Hotel, they look out the picture windows onto the Potomac and marvel at the stream of joggers and walkers passing along the riverfront path.

"You are such an energetic people," a minister of the German government said one early morning as he swallowed cup after cup of coffee in an effort to prod himself into useful activity. "In most of the world, we would rather be in bed."

But how we express ourselves in those hours outside the office varies according to where we live and who we are, and therein lies a story that says a great deal about the challenges facing a city all too divided -- a city whose most prominent feature on a map is an enormous and ambitious park.

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