Accommodating a Whole New Ballgame
Area's Planners Look to Immigrants for the Shape of Parks to Come

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The geometry of recreation is shifting across the Washington suburbs, driven in part by the sporting preferences of a burgeoning immigrant population. As the rectangles of soccer gradually overtake baseball's diamonds, parks officials are even finding room for the large, grassy ovals of cricket.

Also fading away is the simplicity of a bygone era, when officials concentrated on providing facilities for a handful of mainstream sports: baseball and softball, basketball, golf, tennis, ice hockey, swimming. "As people's interests have splintered," said Nick Duray, a manager at the Fairfax County Park Authority, "we find ourselves needing to be involved in a lot more activities."

After Sheldon R. Ellis arrived from Jamaica in 1985, cricket games near the Mall helped him endure hard times in a new country. "You could talk your dialect, and folks would understand. You could tell your corny Caribbean jokes," he said.

Now a successful lawyer raising a family in Montgomery County, Ellis is still playing near the Mall and in a half-dozen other places in the region. And Montgomery, which had resisted entreaties from lovers of bowlers and wickets, is looking at a site in Burtonsville big enough and flat enough to make a fine cricket ground.

"We should be diversifying," said Mark S. Wallis, a senior park planner for Montgomery County. "We know the demographics are, so we know the park system's offerings need to change."

Recreation officials are concentrating with new vigor on discerning and providing what the people want. Fairfax opened a skate park last year, Montgomery is building its first, and both jurisdictions are planning more. The counties are struggling to find space and resources to accommodate indoor soccer and roller and field hockey.

Surveys show that people want more walking trails, more places to picnic, more areas in which to exercise their dogs.

In Montgomery, the focus on creating recreational opportunities follows the realization that mainstream sports aren't as lucrative as they once were. Since the mid-1980s, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has grouped its fee-generating activities -- primarily golf, ice skating and indoor tennis -- into an "enterprise division" designed to be self-supporting.

This year, for the first time, the commission is planning to use $569,000 in tax revenue to keep the division out of the red. Its golf courses have operated at a loss since 2000, according to a financial assessment conducted last year, and ice skating also has not proved as popular as expected.

The answer, said division chief Bill Mooney, is to promote "great active recreation for everybody. . . . We have to get ahead of these trends and be able to respond to them and provide recreation . . . to a more diverse community."

If there is one thing an immigrant-rich community wants, it is more space to play soccer. The Fairfax County Park Authority anticipates a need for 416 public soccer fields by 2013, up from the 239 that exist today. Fairfax has 322 diamonds available, said Sandra Stallman, the authority's long-range planner, and officials anticipate needing only 44 more by 2013.

"Our greatest need is soccer -- absolutely," said Robin Riley, a division chief in Montgomery's Recreation Department. It has about 130 registered adult soccer teams, but Riley estimated that an additional 50 to 75 unregistered teams play on county fields. As a result of the intense demand, some of the fields are "worn to ruin," she said.

Montgomery's Planning Board is considering a pilot program that would provide additional resources -- portable toilets, increased signage in English and Spanish and expanded police patrols -- at nine fields that have steady use by adult soccer teams, many of which include immigrants from Latin America.

The county built many of its fields in the expectation of hosting youthful soccer players and their coaches and parents for an hour or so at a time. The adult teams -- along with supporters who park, picnic and sometimes imbibe alcohol -- can stay all day.

Montgomery doesn't yet see a need for more soccer fields than baseball and softball fields, but that day is coming, said senior park planner Wallis. In the meantime, he said, "we're going to do some conversion from diamonds to rectangles."

County officials also are seeing increased demand for table tennis and badminton, generated in large part by immigrants from Asia. Members of the Potomac Country Table Tennis Club play twice a week at the Potomac Community Center, a county facility that has hosted the club since 1989.

In a gymnasium noisy with the pock and click of orange balls sent flying across green tables, Wayne Zhong surveyed 40 players hailing from Britain, China, Greece, Iran, Russia, Taiwan and Vietnam. "There are many foreigners here, and they came with their skill," he said. He added that the quality of play may not be professional but that it is "higher than Ping-Pong in the basement."

Roxroy Anderson, a Jamaican-turned-U.S. citizen who lives in Prince George's County, has spent years lobbying Montgomery officials to make room for cricket, something his county, the District and other jurisdictions did years ago. He said Wallis, the senior planner, is the first Montgomery official "who actually sat down and listened." Anderson is enthusiastic about the potential for cricket in Burtonsville.

He phrased the county's recreational quandary this way: "It's a matter of: Now I have a different makeup to my people, and do I want to reach out to everybody?"

Ellis, who happily stumbled across the cricket match near the Mall, said the sport has provided him a source of friends and helped him achieve his version of the American dream. "There is a hidden psychology in the game that channels your mind into progress," he said.

Especially in those early days, when he regretted his decision to leave his family's "huge house" in Jamaica for a "ghetto" in Langley Park, the game gave him some respite from the trials of his transition. It still does.

"It reminds me of my background," he said. "It keeps me tuned."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company