Mayor Walter Washington remembers the District of Columbia in the 1930s as an unattractive city for young blacks. "There wasn't much. The town was segregated and there were just a few things open to black kids. Even 10 to 12 years ago, we had only a few pools. Now we have had only a few pools. Now we have a pool in just about every neighborhood."
When Walter Brooks was a young boy growing up in the District, recreation during the summer meant improvisation - baseball games on vacant lots and school grounds and occasional games of horseshoes and table tennis.
Last week, the Mayor's Sixth Annual Kickoff Festival for Youth at the Banneker Stadium celebrated the change. Brooks organized the festival, where Washington launched the Distict's summer recreation program by offering his constituents a summer of free recreation.
As children milled about carrying helium-filled balloons, displaying crafts they made, and riding on a hay wagon and an old-fashioned horse and buggy. Washington praised the city's summer program and exhorted residents to take part in it.
"Go home and tell your friends and families that if they don't enjoy the summer, it's their fault, because we've got it all there for you," he declared. Then he reminded the approximately 700 residents to pick up one of the free lunches the D.C. school system was providing.
Most of the children at the festival needed no one to convince them to participate or enjoy themselves. The arts and crafts tables representing each recreation ward and the city Craftmobile were especially popular with young children.
"I liked the parade and stuff, and all the ponies and stuff, and the police horse I saw," said Isaiah Thomas, 12, as he carefully filled in brown sand on the shell of a sand art turtle he was making.
"I like to make things and stuff like that," said Alietha Turner, 8, another sand artists whose pink and blue teddy bear was one of the most successful efforts. She has taken part in the summer recreation program in the past, and plans to do so again this year, because, "I like to draw pictures and to help people at things."
Cynthia Wyrick, 10, put the craft exhibitions to good use by weaving a basket for her father for Father's Day. The basket took a while to make, but, "It was easy. I like working with my hands," Cynthia said as she sat down at another booth and asked a recreation worker to show her how to make a flower out of scraps of old material and pipecleaners. She said she'll be swimming at the Capitol East Pool this summer as well as doing crafts.
Youths from each of the District's recreation areas put on shows of dance, gymnastics, poetry, weight-lifting and theater. One group from the Savoy Recreation Center put on a spirited performance of excerpts from the Broadway musical "Purlie," and received especially rousing applause.
Brooks had hoped for 5,000 to 15,000 persons, but attributed the low turnout to rain the night before. Still, many who braved the 90-degree weather - with makeshift fans, umbrellas and their own stock of orange juice - seemed to enjoy the festival despite the heat.
It is, after all, a big change from the way things used to be. No longer do District youth have to rely on improvisations as Brooks did. This summer 153 recreation centers, including 27 major swimming pools, will be open and staffed by more than 4,000 workers.
Washington, after acknowledging with a chuckle the fact that he didn't often get a chance as he did last week to literally offer residents a free lunch, added, "Except we'll have free lunches all day this summer (in the recreation program)."