For the past 12 years, the Hoffman-Boston school has stood as a brick monument to broken promises for residents of the overwhelmingly black community of Arlington View.
The closing of the school in 1971 for desegregation purposes was a blow to the middle-class neighborhood, which viewed it as a unifying force in a community cut off from the rest of Arlington County by a maze of highways and thoroughfares.
"The two things that tie a community together are a church and a school," said C. Eugene Hubbard, president of the Arlington View Civic Association. "We still have the church . . . , but the school's leaving has fragmented the community because we have kids going to school everywhere."
Residents were only slightly placated at the time by the school board's promises that Hoffman-Boston would retain its neighborhood orientation.
"The school board made a verbal statement that, at the request of the community, the school would always remain open to serve the community, and one of the things the community wanted was a black arts cultural center," said Evelyn Reid Syphax, current chairman of the Arlington County School Board and a neighborhood resident whose husband's family dates back to 1820 in Arlington.
It was only a few months ago, however, that such a center finally opened at the school. It was a fledgling program that community leaders hoped would come to symbolize to the neighborhood some of the same things the school had once symbolized: a sense of identity and possibility.
Now they worry that their efforts will end when the state grant that helps to fund the center runs out next week. "It's like anything else," said Hubbard, a neighbor of the school at 1415 S. Queen St. "As soon as we seem to have a foot in the door, someone comes around and closes the door."
Arlington View is a quiet, tree-lined enclave whose pride of community is reflected in the freshly painted houses and the recent sight of a little girl pedaling her bike over to a trash can to dispose of her candy wrapper.
In the past 10 years, the community of six square blocks has changed from an exclusively black neighborhood of middle-class families who have lived there for generations. Today, while 95 percent of the 336 households is still black, whites and other ethnic groups are moving into the area, which is sandwiched between I-395, Columbia Pike and the Army-Navy Country Club.
The residents run the gamut from doctors, lawyers and teachers to bus drivers and sanitation workers. They landscape the neat lawns surrounding their predominantly brick houses with hedges of roses and geraniums. The average household income is $20,209. The community, police say, has consistently ranked lowest in the county in serious crimes.
"We're not strangers here," said Lelia G. Freeman, who has lived in the area once known as Johnson's Hill for 24 years with her husband, James, and her daughter, Janice, who attended Hoffman-Boston.
"We look out for each other . . . and we do things for people who live alone and would do it for them until they passed away. If people have trouble walking or problems with their vision, and they couldn't leave home, or if they lacked food or transportation to the doctor, we take care of those needs," she said.
"This is a community of old-line black families whose ties for generations have been in the schools," said Cannis Hull, the center's coordinator. "This school used to be the focal point, the lifestream of people in the area . . . .
"I'm not saying Hoffman-Boston could go back to being the main center of education because we've got a changing population . . . . But people miss the idea of having a visible, educational facility. That was the loss they felt. They wanted some concept of education to be directed at the community."
Repeated neighborhood attempts to create such a center fizzled until last March, when the state allocated $7,000 from the community education fund as seed money that was matched with "in-kind" contributions from the county--materials, supplies and a room set aside in the building for the center. But the state grant runs only through June 30.
Recently, program supporters reapplied to the state for another $20,000 community education grant in hopes of keeping the fledgling program alive. They are also considering asking the County Board for a $10,000 supplementary grant.
The county operates several programs in the sprawling school and the adjoining Carver Recreational Center, Hubbard said, but "only about 3 percent is community-based, geared to our needs." Such antipoverty programs as Head Start for preschoolers, for example, really aren't oriented to the middle-class neighborhood that puts a premium on education, he said.
Instead, the center's sponsors envision a place where programs would range from the humanities to upgrading job skills, a place where residents can learn more about their heritage.
The few months of the center's operation have seen well-attended seminars on "Stress and the Black Family" and a "Humanities Scholar in Residence" program in which a local professor discussed economic and social trends facing blacks.
During the day, the center is used primarily by the elderly who congregate in its one room to paint or crochet, surrounded by the finished cloaks and sweaters of others and pictures of the school in its various incarnations as an elementary, junior high and senior high school.
"We need to teach our children about their heritage and the only place that can happen is here," Hubbard said. " . . . People need to have a sense of belonging and worth. If it's not taught, it's hard to assimilate into society."