The playground at the Benning-Stoddert Recreation Center on East Capitol Street is almost unusable. Swings and climbing bars are broken or missing and two of the four seesaws are splintered.
At New York Avenue and First Street NW, the playground once reserved for small children is littered with bottles. Paving stones have been ripped up and scattered. A play horse mounted on a spring, wrenched from its pedestal, lies on its side.
The play areas are a reflection of years of deferred maintenance and budget cuts in the D.C. Department of Recreation. Many of the city's 121 playgrounds and parks were built over the years with federal funds, but maintenance of them lagged because the District didn't have the money, department officials said.
In 1981, a citywide budget crunch worsened the maintenance situation. Between 1980 and 1982, the department lost through layoffs half its maintenance staff. According to recreation staff members, little or no work was done in some playgrounds, and even some safety hazards took weeks or months to correct.
This year the city is spending $88,000 to paint equipment at playgrounds around the city. Several older recreation centers considered in poor condition, such as Banneker at 800 Euclid St. NW, Randall at South Capitol and I streets and the John F. Kennedy Playground at Seventh and P streets NW, are slated for major renovations. The city's fiscal 1983 budget for maintaining play areas is proposed to be $4.9 million, down from 1982's $5.2 million but up from 1981's $4 million.
The Recreation Department's maintenance division has a new director, Magnus Blanchette, a Trinidad-born architect, who promises better routine maintenance through efficient management. For example, he said, the department has drawn up a citywide schedule so that grass in parks will be mowed regularly in the summer.
At Benning-Stoddert, at East Capitol Street and Stoddert Place, area residents and the recreation center's staff say they are disheartened by the long time the Recreation Department takes to fix broken equipment. However, they praise the center's director, Thomas Bradford, for the recreation program that survived the budget cuts.
Lily Brunswick, a medical technician at St. Elizabeths Hospital, has volunteered at the center two or three days a week to fire ceramic pieces since the ceramics teacher was transferred. She said she and other users of the center were upset that lights in the parking lot were broken, and they successfully resorted to calling the offices of the mayor and City Council members this spring to have the lights fixed.
"Not that Bradford didn't try to get it the problem fixed," Brunswick said. "We support him 100 percent. He tries very hard to get what he needs. With a bare minimum, this place runs terrifically well. That's a credit to the staff."
Many elderly residents in the area stopped using the recreation center when its staff was reduced from eight to three because of budget cuts. Gymnastics classes and teen-age girls club were disbanded because no staff member was available to run them. Parents say they won't let their children play at the playground because it often is littered with broken glass.
"That place has really gone down," said Betty Wiggins, who has used Benning-Stoddert since it opened eight years ago and often volunteered to help the staff. "It's not like it used to be. They've lost a lot of their people, too. Things are altogether different now. It seems like people have just lost interest."
Air conditioning is another problem at Benning-Stoddert. In a section of the center used by preschoolers, the cooling system has been broken since spring. In the gym, it has worked sporadically for seven years, staff members say.
"You put in a work order. They tell you're number so-and-so on the list to get it fixed. We were second on the list to get the air conditioning fixed in the spring, and it's still not fixed," staff member Minnie Wray complained.
Blanchette explained that the process routinely takes about two months because the department must hire a private firm to repair air conditioning systems and lighting. He said he hopes routine maintenance will reduce the number of breakdowns.
Benning-Stoddert will be spruced up a bit with the painting of the building, officials said, but play equipment will remain broken because the department has not allotted any money for its replacement.
"I've got about 18 things in my two wards that have to be done," said Walter Brooks, the Recreation Department's manager for wards 7 and 8. "Once they get all my air conditioning fixed and all my lights fixed and all my fields reconditioned, then I can say, 'How about the play equipment at Benning-Stoddert?' "
Blanchette noted, "Although we are repairing play equipment, in the real world, other things have to be fixed first."
Diane Alexander and her three helpers take the 22 children at the New York Avenue playground's day-care center to another neighborhood playground to play because theirs is so run down.
Playground director Mayme Clark said maintenance crews will paint the 15-year-old field house and two small pieces of climbing equipment on the playground. A set of rusting steps and a hobbyhorse mounted on a spring will be taken out, Clark said. The department does not plan to install more equipment.
Older children also are affected by the lack of maintenance. This summer, the maintenance department replaced the playground's basketball rims three months after the last one had been broken or stolen, said Clark's assistant, David Brooks. "How can you run a rec center without basketball rims?" he asked.
Barbara Green, a resident who is a member of the citywide parent advisory board for the department's day-care centers, said the playground is in worse condition than when she played on it as a child 20 years ago. Her daughter attends the day-care center, but Green said she does not take her to the playground.
"I don't think what little equipment they have is safe enough for her. Being a little teeny kid, she's into slides and swings. They don't have anything like that. And all that equipment is on concrete, which is no good," she said.
"You run up against a lot of talk about the budget. Budget or no, I've looked at other centers and they seem to be able to get the equipment they need," Green said.
Anna Tatum, Recreation Department manager for wards 5 and 6, said she is aware of conditions at the New York Avenue playground. "I don't think it's the most run-down playground in the city. We know what is wrong, and we're [going] about correcting it," she said.
John McClain, deputy chief of the engineering division of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said residents must take some responsibility for maintaining play areas. "With diminishing funds, we'll have to look to local community pride to maintain the things that they enjoy," he said.