Ted Jacobs doesn't mind making a few sacrifices for the arts, but he won't give up his sleep or his parking space.
Jacobs, together with the Burleith Citizens Association, is trying to curtail the after-hours activities of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, which is across the street from his house. He believes that the comings and goings engendered by the special nature of the school put an undue burden on the neighborhood.
Ellington was created in 1974 by the D.C. Board of Education to train students for careers in the arts. The school is housed in the old Western High School building at 35th and R Streets NW. Students study theater, voice, music, dance, painting and sculpture as well as their regular academic subjects.
"We have been badly abused by the high school," Jacobs said. "It is going roughshod over our rights. They have basically changed a high school that is running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to something running 24 hours a day."
The residents of R Street complain of noisy young people arriving at the school early on Saturday mornings for school trips and congregating near the houses, ebullient students leaving rehearsals at 11:30 p.m. and continuing their song and dance routines on the street, and a cleaning crew that punctuates its departure from the building at 5:30 a.m. with roaring motors and loud conversation.
The chief complaint of Jacobs and other residents of the Burleith neighborhood, which abuts on the school, concerns Ellington's practice of leasing its 820-seat theater to outside organizations. The performances sponsored by these groups sometimes bring hundreds of cars into an area already short on parking.
The D.C. Board of Education renovated the theater two years ago at a cost of $2 million and created a modern, professional facility complete with an orchestra pit that can be raised and lowered hydraulically. To defray some of the costs of operating an arts program, the Board of Education permits the Ellington Fund, a nonprofit support group, to lease the theater to organizations when the students are not using it. Maurice Eldridge, the principal at Ellington, estimated that outside organizations rent the theater about 18 weekends during the school year and for a few weekends during the summer.
The organizations must agree to hire students to assist with the performances. Any profit is funneled back into the theater program. Since the beginning of August, the lease has raised $14,000 for the program, according to the president of the fund, Janet Rubin.
By far the best-known and most popular organization to rent the theater is Hexagon, an amateur theater group that produces an annual satirical revue for charity. Hexagon's performances invariably sell out, bringing hundreds of cars into the neighborhood every night for a month.
The civic organizations would like the school to cut back its use of the theater to 20 performances a year and eliminate the rentals altogether.
Jacobs and other civic activists with the Burleith Citizens Association and the Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commission say the school system has ignored the complaints of the neighbors. However, Ellington principal Eldridge and school board member Wanda Washburn say the school is trying to be a good neighbor but that some residents seem unwilling to compromise.
Last year, the school board offered to build a 150-car parking lot on the empty and overgrown schoolyard at Gordon Adult Education Center three blocks away at 35th and T streets NW. This would have solved part of the parking problem not only for Ellington, but for Gordon students as well. The neighbors objected.
"I went back to the buildings and grounds people and told them not to do any more work on the parking lot," Washburn said.
Eldridge said that the school has adopted some of the neighbors' proposals to reduce noise, but that others take time and some are unrealistic. The citizens' suggestion of building a driveway in front of the school on 35th Street to reduce traffic congestion was dismissed by Washburn as too expensive.
The school has asked the D.C. Council to close 36th Street between Reservoir Road and S Street so that it may be used for staff parking and bus loading and unloading, Eldridge said. He hopes this will alleviate the neighbors' irritation.
Eldridge said he reminds Ellington students and audiences continually that the school is in a residential neighborhood and that students and adults need to respect the rights of the neighbors. However, he said, it is not possible or desirable for the school to stop renting the theater.
"One of the things about Ellington that is important is that it is a cultural center, not just a school," Eldridge said. "We are trying to educate people to be informed and intelligent consumers of the arts as well as performers."