The YMCA of Metropolitan Washington announced yesterday the immediate closing of the Anthony Bowen YMCA in Shaw, the first black YMCA in the country and one of two in the city available to young persons at affordable costs.
The YMCA board cited "safety factors" and fire code violations as reasons for closing the historic 73-year-old building at 1816 12th St. NW.
The announcement drew an immediate angry response from William H. Rumsey, director of the D.C. Department of Recreation, who disputed the seriousness of the safety problems and said the abrupt closing will deprive many neighborhood youngsters of organized recreation.
"I pleaded with them not to close it," said Rumsey, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the shutdown among some two dozen YMCA board members at a meeting yesterday. "This closing means that these kids, these short-leggers, these babies do not have a facility in that area to go to."
In recent years the YMCA has been the target of criticism for building a new $5.3 million downtown facility for adults with initiation costs and annual membership fees of several hundred dollars, well beyond the reach of the District's poor. There is one other YMCA facility, on Benning Road NE, that, like Bowen, has youth programs and is affordable to the families of many District youngsters.
Rumsey said it was "unfortunate" that the YMCA could not have used more resources to maintain the Bowen facility, which is in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods.
"I am concerned about these children," said Rumsey, who is chairman of Bowen's management committee. He noted the constant presence of "drugs and prostitution" along 13th and 14th streets NW, just a few blocks from Bowen, and said the YMCA there played an important role by offering basketball, arts and crafts, a game room and other alternatives to hanging out on the street. He said some youngsters would have to walk fairly long distances to find similar programs at city recreation centers.
Rumsey said the YMCA easily could have corrected most of the 50 fire code violations cited by the D.C. Fire Department in a recent inspection. The violations, he said, were primarily "housekeeping" problems such as exposed wires, poor storage of combustible material, and excessive use of extension cords. He said if the violations were indeed serious, fire officials could have ordered the closing.
YMCA board chairman Thomas B. Hargrave was not available for comment yesterday. Last year, he said the most feasible plan for Bowen was to sell it and build a new facility, because rehabilitating it would cost about $3.5 million.
The YMCA announcement issued late yesterday said the closing was necessary "rather than risk possible injury to children, senior citizens, other participants and YMCA staff." It said that some Bowen programs would be temporarily relocated in other community facilities.
The statement also "reaffirmed" the YMCA's intention to build a new facility in the area. The board called that the "highest priority." Rumsey said that plan has been discussed for several years.
The board said it had been forced for several years to divert operating funds into continuing repairs "and the board felt these monies could be better spent in providing program services."
Bowen's swimming pool was closed 20 years ago, while top floors in the four-story brick building were shut off in 1972. Only the ground floor and basement were in limited use, the YMCA said.
Bowen's doors were locked late yesterday afternoon and a secretary said the staff was attending a "Partners with Youth" fund-raising dinner for the Bowen facility.
The secretary said board members were told only 40 children were using the facility daily, but he said he believed the figure was somewhat higher and could have been much higher if the YMCA had developed more programs there.
Outside the Bowen YMCA yesterday, Johnny Jordan, 12, of 1819 12th St. NW, said he hoped the building opposite his house would not close because "we would have to go all the way around Shaw" to find somewhere else to play basketball.
"You gonna rebuild it?" he asked.