Cultural Rifts in Play; Children Mix Better Than Adults as D.C. Recreation Center Evolves
By Perry Bacon Jr.
On a hot summer day at the Kalorama Recreation Center, two children, one from Burma and the other from Russia, played together on the swings while a group of African American and Hispanic children raced to have the next turn on the slide.
Sounds of different accents echoed on the playground as parents picked up their grinning kids from day camp. The children come from the center's Adams Morgan neighborhood and elsewhere in the city.
The rich mix of children drawn to the recreation center brings many cultural differences to the camp, differences that didn't matter as the youngsters celebrated the end of another play day.
But after 6 p.m., that cross-cultural camaraderie so evident during the day breaks down.
In one section of the center's adjoining park, at Kalorama Road and 19th Street NW, mostly white twenty- and thirty-somethings walk their dogs. Inside the center, mostly African American teenagers play table tennis and other games in the small recreation room. Outside, a group of mainly African American teenagers plays a game of basketball. And on most Wednesdays, Latino men gather, hoping to get in a game of soccer before nightfall.
The increased activity at the 41-year-old center speaks to the successes and struggles of the District's residential renaissance. In Kalorama, a gentrified neighborhood that draws people of different races and ethnicities, the challenge of serving the diverse population has fallen to Earl Johnson, the recreation director who has rejuvenated the center and the adjoining park during his two-year tenure.
The neighborhood around the center is more than 80 percent white and mostly upscale. But it also serves Hispanics, other recent immigrants and African Americans, both those who live in and near the area and those who come from other neighborhoods because of the charismatic Johnson.
"The reason the park is being used more now is that Earl Johnson has a focus on activities for youth and communication among different groups," said Elizabeth Collins, a longtime park user and Adams Morgan resident who has served on the park's advisory board. "We have a lot more people using the park for multipurposes, and there is a better spirit of cooperation among the users."
But Johnson could use more help from the city in serving his increasingly multiethnic clientele. He wants to post signs in front of the park that read, "Welcome," in 28 languages, all of which Johnson says are spoken by people who use the recreation area.
When a Bangladeshi group had a birthday party in the park a few months ago for young twins, he sought out one of the few guests who spoke English to introduce him to the parents.
For now, he would be happy just to be able to hire a Spanish-speaking aide.
And he would like to resolve a dispute over the "soccer field," which is actually a concrete basketball court. For more than 15 years, the concrete pad has served Leonel and Joel Cruz, Latinos who ignore the hoops and lines and use the space for weekly four-on-four games.
The pair, who grew up in Adams Morgan, started playing soccer on the basketball court in 1986. Back then, the seldom-used court was their soccer field several nights a week, often hosting games deep into the night.
But to Johnson and many of the teenagers who use the recreation center, the concrete expanse is what it was built to be: a basketball court. So Johnson has told the Cruzes that they can play soccer only from 6:30 to 8:30 on Wednesday nights, and only on half of the court.
The cousins and their friends chafe at the restrictions.
"We tried to convince him. We told him we've been doing this for a long time, but he said he didn't care," Leonel Cruz said. "He's new; he doesn't know us."
Johnson blames the soccer players for the disagreement, noting that at times, they refused to yield the court to basketball players. The Cruzes say they've tried to be accommodating.
"The reality is, it's a basketball court, and basketball has priority. And we probably should be kicking them off the basketball court," Johnson said. "I think we are being extremely generous."
The soccer issue is not unique to Kalorama Park. At the Rose Park Recreation Center in Ward 2, the Palisades Community Center in Ward 3 and the Upshur Recreation Center in Ward 4, similar disputes have arisen in the last several years, said Terry Lee, chief of communications and marketing for the District's Department of Parks and Recreation. Park directors face similar pressures in Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland, where soccer and cricket leagues compete with more traditional U.S. sports.
District officials have generally found makeshift solutions in neighborhoods facing such problems. For example, at the Upshur Center, officials built a fence around the baseball field, leaving enough space behind it to install goals for a soccer field, director Alice Montague said.
Only 11 of the city's 77 recreation centers have soccer fields, Lee said. The city hopes to add soccer fields in empty spaces and, in some cases, might replace baseball fields with soccer fields in communities that want them. At Lincoln Multicultural Center in Mount Pleasant, for example, the fields have been expanded and are almost exclusively dedicated to soccer.
Kalorama has no baseball field, however, so the tension over the basketball court continues. It also points to a larger problem -- a gulf in culture and language. For two years, Johnson has tried to hire a Hispanic aide, he said. When he finally found someone, the parks department moved too slowly to hire her, and she took another job.
The agency, partly because of cultural and language barriers in Kalorama and elsewhere, plans to recruit more Hispanics. It does not have statistics on the racial and ethnic makeup of its staff, although Lee said he thinks that most of the Hispanic employees work in the recreation centers and parks, not the central office.
Johnson said he'd like to draw more Hispanics to the park with the help of a Latino aide. He would also like to see Hispanics who use the center become more involved, attending meetings of its advisory board and joining or donating to the Funds for Kalorama Park, a group that provides money for park improvements and programs.
He points to the dog owners -- "the yuppies," as Johnson calls them -- as an example of how people with competing interests can find ways to peacefully coexist.
Before Johnson arrived at the center, dog owners, parents of young children and older residents who work in the park's garden clashed about the use of the space. After Johnson got there, dog owners began attending meetings of the advisory board and volunteered for cleanup duties on Saturdays. The meetings allowed the groups to resolve their differences, and Johnson eventually loosened the rules and let dogs go off-leash in one corner of the park.
Little discord was evident on the basketball court on a recent Wednesday night as soccer and basketball players shared the space. They rarely interacted, except when the basketball landed on the other side of the court and soccer players tossed it back toward the rim.
"It's fine; we don't have a problem with it," said Rob Hawkins, 15, who often plays basketball at the park.
Johnson said, however, that other teenagers have raised concerns about sharing the court with the soccer players. Still, as the night ended, both groups seemed happy with the arrangement -- because each got to play. For Johnson, it's the best solution he has.
"It is their park," he said. "And it's everyone else's park. And I have no problem with it being everyone's park."Jorge Lopez takes it easy at camp, which draws youths of various cultures. Area adults have a harder time bridging differences.Saada Seck, 6, and Kyaw Han, 8, bond at a day camp at the Kalorama Recreation Center in Adams Morgan.Taylor Weldon, left, 6, Armani Bodd, 7, and Amber Robinson, 7, enjoy camp at the community center, which is struggling to serve various cultures.Naseela Saleh and her son Laith, 8 months, play in the adjoining park. Tension has arisen at community centers across the Washington region, as basketball and soccer players compete for space.
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