A plan to rename a Northeast Washington recreation center in honor of a sixth-grade girl who died on the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, will move forward despite vehement opposition from some residents, a D.C. Council member said yesterday.
Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) got the idea to rename the new North Michigan Park Recreation Center after chatting with Michelle Cottom, the mother of Asia Cottom, who was among 184 people killed when hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
The proposal has angered residents who say the Cottoms are not the only family in the community that has suffered a tragic loss and note that the family has since moved out of the neighborhood. They also are upset that Orange did not consult the community before drafting his bill, particularly because there are stalwarts in North Michigan Park who have worked hard to get the center built and would be more deserving of such an honor, residents say.
Grace Lewis, president of the North Michigan Park Civic Association, said more than 500 people have signed petitions opposing the change, although they felt it appropriate to dedicate a room in the center to the Bertie Backus Middle School student and her teacher, Sarah M. Clark, who was also killed in the Pentagon crash.
"The rationale is there have been several people in the community who have done outstanding things, and they feel if any name is on the center, it should be one of them," Lewis said. "We don't know [Asia's] family. They have never been involved in the community."
Lewis said the residents mean no disrespect to the memory of Asia, one of three D.C. public school students who along with three teachers were traveling to an ecology conference in California. She said many residents contributed to a scholarship fund in the child's name.
"This is one thing that the community has some strong feelings about," Lewis said. "With all respect to the Cottom family, I hate to have this all dragged out through the public. I hope this can be resolved."
Helen Talley, a former president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations and an 18-year North Michigan Park resident, said the new facility should retain the name of the old center, which was torn down two years ago.
"It's been that way for years. Why should it change?" Talley asked. "We're willing to give a room in the center, but not the whole name."
The proposal, which has yet to be voted on by the council, would rename the center at 13th and Emerson streets NE the Asia Cottom North Michigan Park Memorial Recreation Center. A training room at the center would be dedicated in the name of all the students and their teachers.
Cynthia Reid, who started the group Concerned Neighbors of North Michigan Park five years ago, said she recognizes that opponents to Orange's bill may sound "anti-Asia" and appear "coldhearted" but that is not the issue.
"You have an elected official trying to throw something down this community's throat without saying boo to us," Reid said. "It's not just about some alphabets on some bricks and mortar."
Michelle Cottom said the family does not want the community bickering over her daughter's name. She said that she talked to Orange at a memorial tribute to the victims but that she did not know about the proposal until Orange's office called her much later.
"It's not like we were petitioning him to change the name of the center," Cottom said.
Reid said there are several reasons not to name the center in the girl's honor, including the community's ill feelings about construction delays and cost overruns. The center, which will have indoor basketball courts, was budgeted at $2 million and scheduled to be completed early last year. The costs have since risen to $3.4 million, and the center is scheduled to open by mid-June, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Orange said he was "really shocked at the opposition" but would not withdraw his bill."The council will vote on the renaming of the center," he said. "Although there is some opposition, there are many who are in favor of it and think this is a good way to recognize and memorialize Asia Cottom, her teacher and the others who lost their lives."