Despite the long, hot, sunny days, the boys of summer at the Emery Recreation Center have been forced off the baseball diamond.
The recreation center's field is littered with rocks, glass and leftover construction debris, ground down. Grass, not dirt, covers the diamond. The pitcher's mound is gone, flattened. And the chain-link backstop is broken, threatening to topple over onto home plate.
"How you going to play baseball here?" asked Nathaniel Catlett, a volunteer coach, as he picked up rocks. "You got a field that's been here 50 years, and when they built the new facility they said, 'Forget about it.' "
Lewis Turner, a coach and longtime recreation advocate, joked that the field should be named Soldiers' Field "because of the condition. . . . The field was like combat, so you had to be a soldier to play on it."
City officials built the $6.5 million Emery Recreation Center, which opened two years ago in Northwest Washington, but paid no mind to what the constant users wanted, Catlett and Turner said.
There were tennis courts instead of basketball courts, and no attention to the fields, which used to be in use constantly.
This month, Catlett and Turner took their complaint to the confirmation hearing of Kimberley Flowers, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation's acting director.
"I'm not asking for a stadium that the Redskins or the Nationals are going to have," Catlett said during the hearing. "We can't practice baseball on Emery field. Just maybe one day you can just walk out there."
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the council's committee that oversees the recreation department, said the committee has received numerous complaints about poor maintenance at the facility, including broken and dangerous stairs.
City officials said that renovating the athletic field at Emery was not in the budget for the new center but that they were taking steps to fix the fields and respond to community complaints.
There are classrooms, computers and indoor basketball courts in the recreation center, the coaches said, but many times these amenities are used by teams and camp participants who come into the Petworth community from other areas. On a recent rainy evening, two girls' basketball teams from Maryland played an amateur league game inside the gym, while neighborhood children stood in the doorway watching.
Children practically lived at the old Emery Heights Recreation Center, where Catlett played as a youngster 20 years ago, because "whether you had the best bats or whatever, you knew the field would be here," he recalled. "This was just home."
Coaches, community activists and parents want the center returned to that day. They want the center's outdoor tennis court to be changed back to basketball courts. The tennis court doesn't have a net, but the community doesn't play on it anyway, Turner said.
Instead, four basketball goals are lying on the tennis court, waiting to be installed. Catlett and Turner, who purchased the backboards and poles, removed them when the construction of the new center began. In the spring, they returned them to the tennis court hoping that the recreation department would install them. Nothing happened. "Can't they meet us halfway and put up our rims?" Turner asked.
A year ago, more than 130 residents signed a petition and submitted it to council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who sent it to the former recreation director. The city promised to provide a "multipurpose court" that could be used for basketball and tennis, he said. "We've got to get that multipurpose court and finish renovating the fields," Fenty said. "It's no question that Parks and Recreation has dropped the ball."
Fenty said he's optimistic because the acting director appears to be "more hands on."
Two weeks have passed since the hearing, with no response from city officials, Lewis and Catlett said. They're not surprised. Recreation officials first promised to install the basketball goals last summer. Although the city did turn the dirt over on the baseball diamond, it didn't remove the rocks or maintain it so the grass could grow again.
Neil Rodgers, a top aide to Flowers, said Friday that Flowers understood the Emery coaches' complaints. "Something will be done" about the basketball goals by the first of August, he said, though the athletic field is a project that must wait until fall. The field was not part of the original scope of the capital project, he said.
At the hearing, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was sympathetic. "These are people who are giving of themselves," he said. "All they want is someone to give support back. You're the type of person we want. We want to support you."