It used to be a nice place, the John F. Kennedy Playground -- named after the late president by the children of the Shaw neighborhood where this unique facility is located.
When it opened in 1964, more than 10,000 youngsters, including the six children of then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, swarmed over the block-square site at Seventh and P streets NW, climbing in and around jet planes, boats, jeeps and fire engines, rolling down hills and running fully clothed through the spray ponds that were set up to keep them cool in the summer. Indeed, this was one of the grandest playgrounds this city had ever seen.
But that was 17 years ago, and now th place isn't so grand any more.
The 35-foot Coast Guard tugboat christened Blue Horizon III has in recent years been renamed "the drug motel" by youths in the area, who say it has become a haven for narcotics use and illicit sex.
Aside from the tugboat, there is a T-33 fighter jet plane and a full-scale Army tank. These are about the only pieces of equipment still in one piece.
The two-story-high slide -- the likes of which can be seen at Disney World -- has been closed for nearly two years because of rusting metal and deteriorating supports. There is no sand in the sandbox, no water in the wading pool and no shower in the sprinklers.
The see-saw is broken, and the swings are getting rickety. The playground lights, donated by Howard University so children could play at night, have not worked for the past 12 years.
Billed as a model for urban park planning and a unique way to curb juvenile crime in the Shaw neighborhood, one of the toughest in town, the park attracted more than 1 million children during its first year in operation. Today, attendance is down to a trickle, with as many alcoholics and drug users on the scene as children.
The Rev. Charles Lockett, who lives across the street from the park, sponsored a rally yesterday to "Save Our Playground," but it drew a sparse turnout. "This place is a mess," Lockett said. "But if we work hard, it can be like it was by March next year."
Lockett said he had received pledges from various community organizations, including churches and stores, for almost $90,000 in restoration funds. He said about $150,000 would be needed to return the park to its original splendor.
Juanita Lee, who has been director of the playground for five years, blamed poor maintenance by city officials for the dilapidated equipment, which she said has caused numerous injuries to children playing there.
In recent months, several employes with the city's recreation department maintenance staff have been laid off because of city budget cuts. However, Lee said, many of the problems started before the cutbacks.
Imogene Stewart, who runs the House of Imogene just down the street from the playground, criticized residents in the area for not maintaining the park. She also said that area church leaders had a responsibility to the neighborhood.
"This poor, run-down playground is surrounded by money," Stewart said, pointing toward the many church steeples that can be seen from a hilltop at the center of the playground. "People need to stop expecting so much help from the government and start doing for themselves. The government don't have the money for this kind of thing anymore, and even if they did, people should learn to get more involved on their own."