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A Nurturing Neighborhood

By Marcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 22, 1992

On a cold afternoon last week, children at the Developmental Before and After School Program at Brookland Elementary School finished their homework and rushed outside for an unusual exercise game.

After tossing tennis balls into the center of a colorful parachute, the youngsters grabbed the edges of the parachute and snapped it up and down as fast as they could to see how quickly they could force all of the tennis balls onto the ground. Their carefree giggles and screams summed up one of the simple pleasures of being a child in Northeast Washington's Brookland neighborhood.

"To me this is a good place for children to be because children have stuff that keeps them out of trouble and things that can exercise their minds as well as their bodies," said Amin Massey, 9, a precocious fourth-grader who enjoys the after-school program so much that he created a petition praising the program and got 28 of his playmates to sign it.

With its quiet, tree-lined streets, Brookland is like a small town nestled in a corner of the city.

Children play in spacious front and back yards of single-family Victorian cottages, bungalows and Queen Anne-style homes. Many schools are within walking distance.

And children are not shy about saying what they enjoy about their community.

"I have a lot of friends, and there is no pollution and no shooting," said 7-year-old Wendell West.

"It's a warm place," said Tawnya Artisst, 16, a Wilson High School student. "I know just about everybody in the three blocks from the Metro stop to my home and everybody on my block. I know some people who don't know their next-door neighbor and that's pitiful."

Bounded by Taylor Street, 18th Street, Rhode Island Avenue and the Baltimore&Ohio Railroad tracks, Brookland is a family-centered community where many of the children stress that a sense of security is one of the major reasons they like their community.

Philip Senerchia, a 15-year-old who lives next door to Artisst in the 1300 block of Otis Street NE, said he worries about the violence in the District and has often wondered if it would be better to live in the suburbs.

But then he grabbed a photo album and pointed to a picture of him and Artisst playing in a backyard swimming pool and another of a Halloween party that the two attended; he talked of the fun he had as a child racing through the woods of nearby Bunker Hill Park; and he recalled a recent night when children and adults went outside at 9 p.m. to play in the snow.

"Even at night, everybody was saying hello," Senerchia said. "That's a good thing about this place. People are not shy to talk to one another around here."

Brookland's reputation as a family place was a major attraction for some families who recently purchased homes in the neighborhood.

John Gerrety, a real estate agent who lives in Brookland, said home prices range from $65,000 for a home that needs major renovation work to $285,000, the price that a Brookland home sold for in the summer.

"It's an excellent place to raise a child," said Jo Massey, who moved to Brookland six years ago. "There is a sense of community and a cosmopolitan atmosphere in terms of the racial mixture here."

"No place is a total safe haven if there are problems in a city or society, but Brookland has a special feel," Massey added. "My son and I have formed friendships with the merchants on 12th Street and parents here pitch in to make certain that it's a good place for children."

Seven years ago, when the first of her four children was born, Judy Daniel knocked on her neighbors' doors to start a baby-sitting cooperative. Each family was given a set of poker chips to be used as payment to members who provided baby-sitting services. To replenish the chips, a member family would baby-sit for another family. Today, more than 50 families belong to the cooperative and have exchanged a lot more than child care.

"Through contacts in the cooperative, we have formed car pools, arranged for house sitting and shared tools and information about housing contractors," Daniel said. "Basically, because of the children, we did what you should do in a neighborhood."

In the afternoons, many of Brookland's children can be found at the Turkey Thicket playground, located between the Brookland Elementary School on Michigan Avenue and the city's neighborhood recreation center on 10th Street.

"It's a fun place," said Darren Belton, 8, one of seven friends who gathered at Turkey Thicket last week to play football.

"There is always something to do. Football. Basketball. Field trips. The only thing we don't have is a swimming pool."

The recreation center does have an Image Club, which recruits professional men who play tennis and other sports at the center to serve as role models for young boys.

"A lot of problems with the youth and crime comes about because they don't have a lot to do with their spare time," said center director Tyrone Brown.

"Our goal is to give the children a positive way to spend their time," Brown said.

Turkey Thicket recruits early.

Last Saturday, Christyl English, 5, wearing a black velvet dress with a white lace collar, pleaded for her mother to hurry so that they would not be late for Turkey Thicket's annual Valentine's Day Tea.

When English and 39 other wide-eyed children ages 3 to 10 arrived for the 2 p.m. tea, Shirley Debrow, the center's assistant recreation director, escorted them to child-size tables covered with elegant red tablecloths.

While members of the center's parents club served the children finger sandwiches and an assortment of cakes and cookies, the children talked quietly and contemplated whether their miniature teacups would hold cream as well as sugar.

"The tea gives the children a chance to dress up and to socialize in ways that teach them how to behave in different settings," said Effie Ford, who brought her 6-year-old daughter, Emily, to the tea party.

As the party ended, Ronald English, a 12-year-old who is president of the Brookland Elementary School's student council, stopped by the recreation center to join his mother and sister.

"It is obvious," he said, that Brookland residents "think highly" of their children. English pointed to the playground swings and sliding boards that residents helped buy with a fundraiser that collected more than $5,000.

The former Peace Corps workers who planted trees at the playground last summer "planted the trees for us," he said.

And, he added, residents make time for children.

"You can talk to the adults in this neighborhood," said English, who wants to become a marine biologist. "When you say you're going to be something special, they listen. Everybody believes in you."

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