John Robinson, self-appointed godfather to the young and old of Arlington's predominantly black Green Valley community, vows he will beg in the streets before he will let the neighborhood's Martin Luther King Community Center close.
This spring, the Arlington County Board decided to stop financing the ramshackle, eight-room center at 2411 S. Kenmore St. for the rest of this fiscal year. And late last month, the board decided to call it quits, financially and permanently, with the private center, which has operated largely on public subsidies since 1972.
In past years, the country has allocated $35,000 for the center.
But at a County Board meeting late last month, the board decided to eliminate funds for the King Center. Instead, the county gave the $35,000 -- plus an additional $5,000 -- to its own recreation department, to be used only for other programs in the Green Valley area. The YMCA in the Green Valley community was subsequently asked to submit ideas for local programs.
County officials say the shift in the county's support was not a sudden decision, but had been coming for several years, as the county became increasingly concerned over complaints about the management of the center and some of the activities it sponsored.
The final straw, they say, came in March, when Robinson and Willie Jackson, director of the county-operated Drew Recreational Center at Drew School, had a dispute over the use of a school room for a dance.
Robinson and Jackson say the dispute began after Robinson asked for a room for 7:30 p.m. so the band could practice for a dance Robinson had announced would begin at 9 p.m. Since the room had been booked until 10 p.m., Jackson said she turned down the request.
The band, however, showed up at 7:30 p.m., and after the musicians were told they had to leave, observers said, Robinson loudly berated Jackson for scuttling the affair.
"Basically, what John (Robinson) has been doing is his own thing," said County Manager W. Vernon Ford, who recommended cutting off the center's funds on the basis of a staff study of its operation. "He considers himself an ombudsman to the county, courts and so forth and, as he identifies the needs of the community, he tries to meet them.
"But there has been constant conflict (over the center's administration), and you have to ask, 'When is enough?'"
Robinson, a 45-year-old Arlington native, acknowledges he is not the world's best administrator, but he contends that circumstances often force him to consider other priorities.
"You get out of one crisis and you're in another crisis," he says. "Without the proper staff or money, we're biting off more than we can chew."
According to county records, several checks Robinson wrote as center director were returned for insufficient funds. These included a $10,000 draft for hotel and transportation expenses on a children's trip to Disney World in Florida.Robinson confirmed that the check bounced, but said community residents later organized several fund-raisers to cover the costs.
County officials also say the center's paperwork and reports do not always get done on time, and that permits for activities are sometimes not sought until a few hours before an event, or are simply forgotten.
From watching Robinson at the center, it is obvious his strength is with people -- not paperwork.
"People come in and ask me to go to court with them or go to the police station, or to type up a Social Security form or write an obituary," Robinson said one day recently, as he was doing all those things.
"Then I'm involved in meetings about the criminal justice system and school planning, or writing this (Green Valley) News Letter or finding a place where alcoholics and drug addicts can be treated, or a halfway house for prisoners -- or to help kids look for jobs.
"I could work eight hours a day and then just say, 'forget it,' but I can't."
Some observers suspect that the county's decision to cut off the center's funds had as much to do with the changing character of the Green Valley community as with the complaints about administrative problems.
Green Valley is perhaps the best known quarter of Arlington's Nauck District, a predominately black community centering on Glebe Road. The road has been the historical dividing line between what local residents know as Green Valley and the slightly more affluent Nauck area.
For many years, Green Valley has been known as a high-crime area, and it has had a reputation for drug trafficking. Robinson says he has seen both victims and assailants come through the doors of the King Center.
When the center was still known as the Teen Center, Robinson recalled, "it was a headache to operate because the kids would come in here and shoot up drugs. . . . Drunks would come in. . . ."
These problems have abated somewhat now, he says.
Some Green Valley residents believe the center has come to symbolize, perhaps unfairly, some of the larger problems of the community as a whole -- especially to those unfamiliar with the center's operation.
"It's an advantage for this community to have this center here," said Rosalyn Moore, a pre-med student who has done volunteer work at the center. "I know a lot of people would just leave, give up (on the problems).
"Perhaps Arlington County wants to get rid of the center because of the problems of the area itself, like the drugs. But you just can't get rid of drugs 100 percent, and I think (the county) is using this conflict (over the dance) to get rid of the center."
In March, when the County Board decided to cut off the funds for the remainder of this fiscal year, none of the center's directors knew the action was coming -- an oversight Ford now says was regrettable.
When the County Board met on the proposal to eliminate the center's funds for next year as well, there was a fairly large turnout from both Nauck and Green Valley.
County Manager Ford said a good number of those who spoke at the hearing or who wrote or called in their comments supported the decision -- including some Green Valley residents who complained about noise and vandalism at the center.
"They told us we have a divided community (on the issue)," said Audrey Moten, chairman of the center's board of directors. "But I think it's healthy for a community to have different ideas. As far as I'm concerned, they haven't given us any good reason for cutting off funds." Garusko G. Peake, another member of the center's board, contends the county has not really talked to the people of Green Valley, but has listened more to Nauck residents, who are geographically and economically removed from Green Valley.
Ford, however, says the county did everything it could to aid the center.
"In many areas," he said, "the county has tried to provide a catalyst for neighborhood initiatives, through money. But after 10 years, we didn't seem to be making any progress. The problems still existed, so the county decided to try another resource."
King board member Peake contends the other resource -- the county Recreation Department -- simply cannot meet the needs of Green Valley residents.
Bill Hughes, director of the county Department of Community Affairs, which has jurisdiction over the Drew Center recreation program, said the county's program is not intended to duplicate the center's functions.
As for the King Center, Peake said, its directors are hoping to get financial aid from the United Black Fund and other organizations to keep the center going.
And Robinson, whose $13,000 yearly salary was eliminated along with the rest of the county funds, says he has no fears for the future.
"I guess I'll be like an old-time minister, going from house to house eating. But I'll get along. People in the community have always helped me."