The children arrived on bicycles, some with basketballs under their arms, to attend the long-awaited dedication yesterday of the Trinidad Community Center in Northeast Washington, which has stood unused with its doors locked since 1977.
But like last week's scheduled opening, and the two times last month -- not to mention that day it was supposed to open three years ago -- yesterday's event was a bust.
No one showed up to unlock the doors.
"Why do they keep doing us like this?" grumbled Michael Polite, 13, a clean-out kid in blue jeans and a windbreaker, as he tugged at the locked gymnasium door. "They keep telling us any day now we can play inside. Just be cool. Man, I'm freezing to death out here."
From her living room window across the street, Catherine Mayo saw the children gather at the center and become frustrated when they discovered it still would not be opened.
"Do you see how we do our children?" she said. "When I moved here in 1947 we asked the city for a community center.This doesn't even look like what we asked for, but I'm getting too old to fight much longer."
More than 32 years ago: That's when someone had an idea for a community center in Washington's Trinidad neighborhood. Mayo, then a French teacher at Cardozo High, was president of the Trinidad Citizens Association, which had tried to raise money for the project with bus trips to Luray Caverns in Virginia.
What neighbors had in mind back then was a tribute to their youth. Trinidad, a predominantly black, blue-collar neighborhood where many teenagers live, is bounded by Bladensburg Road and West Virginia Avenue near the National Arboretum and the Mount Olive Cemetery. It is a working class neighborhood, which for years produced some of the city's finest high school athletes.
They were offered an elaborately designed recreation facility to compensate, city officials told them, for the shabby, racially segregated play areas they had to make do with in the past.
But today, to many residents' chagrin, stands a curious-looking custom-made, curved brick castle at 1200 Morse St. NE, with towers and turrets that rise incongrously above the neighborhood's row house smokestack -- a medieval monument to District government bureaucracy.
"It ought to be torn down," said Georgia Byrd, a neighborhood Camp Fire Girl den mother. "It's nothing but a white elephant, just a big old barn. This government is just not organized.We get no credit over here, nothing decent for our children as taxpayers."
The location for the center was cleared of houses in 1962, but it was eight more years before land was transferred to the city's Recreation Department. Meanwhile, the site became a graveyard for abondoned automobiles.
"They just wiped out our neighborhood tax money just like that, then let the land lay fallow," said Korea Strowder, a retired teacher and past president of the Trinidad Civic Association.
In 1970 the Model Cities program came to Washington and the idea for a community center in Trinidad was born again.
Congress allocated more than half a million dollars for the center. But by the time city recreation and construction officials had building plans drawn up -- nearly a year later -- construction costs had gone up, and the city had to go back to Congress for more money. The total construction cost now has risen to $1.2 million -- and is still rising.
"When I took over the Recreation Department in 1966," recalled Joe Cole, now retired, "there was criticism that recreation centers west of Rock Creek Park were far superior to those east of the park. I had set goals to try to correct or balance off this kind of criticism, which to some extent was justifiable."
As the building finally went up, residents and others found numerous problems. The rooms were too small, some complained. The rooftop roller rink was criticized as potentially dangerous because the eight-foot-high brick wall around it "might not hold if, say, a 200-pound kid slammed into it," said James Dickerson, a Recreation Department engineer.
The roof sprang leaks two months before the building was scheduled to open in September 1977. The city stopped payments to the builder, Weiss Construction of Beaver Heights, Md., while attempting to determine who was at fault for the leak. Then the builder went bankrupt.
After receiving the funds from Congress, the city asked Virginia architect John Keegan to design the building. "We gave 'em a super project," Keegan said. The only problem was that the lowest construction bid came in $300,000 over the allocated funds. Keegan reworked his plans, replacing reinforced concrete with brick.
George Boyd, the president of the Mount Olivet Heights Civic Association, recalled talking with Keegan about the cutbacks.
"See, we thought we were getting a multipurpose center with health facilities, indoor swimming pool, tennis, courts and a meeting room. When we met Keegan, he pulled out this arithmetic," Boyd said. "All we could get was a gym with a roller rink on top. Since we had been waiting over 30 years for this thing, I figured a half a loaf was better than no bread at all."
Ground was finally broken for the project in July 1975. But work stopped almost immediately. Keegan's design called for curved brick, but area brick companies told builders they had never heard of such a thing. So curved brick had to be custom-made and brought in from New Jersey.
"These things happen," said William T. Jones, assistant director of the office of planning, a division of the city's Department of General Services.
"Each building is like a sick person. Each one suffers in some way. You have to handle each of them differently. Sometimes, we start out with just a simple, open playground and end up with a building. I don't know how. It just seems to happen."
The children of many residents involved in the early battles to get a community center in Trinidad have now grown up and moved out of the area. When Korea Strowder moved to Trinidad 30 years ago, for example, she was pregnant and had a 15-month-old child.
We got shafted so many times out here," she said. "Our taxes keep going up and up. For what? Nothing."
Boyd said he had notified residents over the weekend of the Recreation Department plans to open the center on Sunday, but did not have time to let them know about a last-minute call he received canceling the plans.
"I don't even know who it was: I just got a call from so-and-so's office saying that since Monday was a holiday the dedication was being called off," Boyd said. "I couldn't believe it.I said what does Monday have to do with Sunday and they said everybody is out of town."
William Rumsay, head of the city's Recreation Department, said the center was not scheduled to open yesterday even though some neighborhood residents believed it was.
"I understand that we will open on Tuesday," Rumsey said last night. "We were going to try to dedicate it [Saturday], but it was postponed because of the long weekend. But we're all ready to go now with staff and everything."
Much of the confusion results from the scores of rotating city officials who have supervised the project over the past decades. Overseas from two departments -- recreation and general services -- have sometimes come up with conflicting dates, all erroneous so far.
Dion Waters, a Spingarn High senior, was hired to guard the building from vandals but recently his job ended. It had consisted mainly of chasing away his friends who waited to break inside and play.
"They would pop the locks and go inside," said Waters, who lives across the street from the center. "They really liked the place. I mean, they were really getting into it, literally. But every time somebody promised them that it would open and it didn't then they would break in and start tearing up on it."
"Like when they said it would open last Friday," Waters said. "I heard the guys saying, "This thing ain't gonna even open. Ya'll ready to tear it down?" I said, "Be cool. It's opening Sunday." Ain't nothing I can say now."