The D.C. Recreation Department didn't have the money to upgrade its popular baseball field at Francis Junior High School. But George Washington University had a deal: The university would put $500,000 into a new field if, in exchange, the college team could have exclusive rights to it in spring and fall.
A better field, but less public access? Recreation Department Director Paul L. Woodard went for it. It was the only way, he said, to create "a first-class field the community can use."
That's the new reality, recreation officials say: A department that never recovered from the staff cutbacks of the early 1980s must now develop new solutions to the traditional problems of how to cut the grass, fill the pools and put programs on the playgrounds.
Nothing is sacred: Some children under 12 are paying $25 for summer playground camps that used to be free, and community groups are paying weekend overtime salaries for crews to put up tents and for workers to drive Recreation Department buses. Even D.C. Council members are being asked to reimburse the department for overtime costs for their annual ward picnics or parades.
Volunteers, with encouragement from the department, are doing work normally assigned to employees. They have mowed grass at Benning Park in Benning Heights, financed and managed a children's softball team on Capitol Hill and built new equipment at Turkey Thicket playground in Brookland.
"We raised $5,500 in nickels and dimes," said Barbara Livingston, one of the Turkey Thicket fund-raisers. "Brookland is not a wealthy neighborhood," but it was either that or wait years for the department to budget for new equipment.
Depleted Staff, Struggling Programs
Maintenance and renovation are not the only problems the department faces as it moves into the 1990s. Playground directors and neighborhood residents across the city agreed they need more workers to run a larger variety of recreation programs for school-aged children.
But the recreation supervisors needed to create those experiences for children all but vanished from the playgrounds in 1980 when the department lost 300 jobs, or 40 percent of its total, as part of a citywide budget cutback.
Some of those jobs eventually were restored, but a partial hiring freeze has continued since that time, and the number of employees has never reached the 759 of a decade ago. This year, the department has 482 employees and a $34.7 million budget.
The initiatives launched by the Recreation Department during the 1980s focused not on the playgrounds and pools but on creating more than two dozen permanent programs, including some senior citizen centers, city-run festivals and pre-kindergarten child care.
There were too few workers to staff the playgrounds adequately and to fulfill the mandate of all the programs, which included special events such as the recently canceled Riverfest.
A decade ago, playgrounds averaged four or five employees. Today, the Recreation Department says, the average is one full-time and one part-time employee for each. A survey of recreation facilities by The Washington Post showed some were run by a single employee.
At the Raymond Recreation Center at 10th Street and Park Road NW, one of 102 recreation centers in the city, assistant director Janet Williams was watching teenagers on the basketball court outside and younger children at the Ping-Pong tables inside.
Normally there would be a director working with her, but on this day she was alone.
"It's nice to have all these programs, to work with everyone in D.C," she said, "but we just don't have enough people."
She and other directors said they willingly work overtime for no pay to make sure children get to participate in weekend and evening activities.
Despite the decrease in services on the playgrounds, 72 percent of those polled by The Post rated the quality of the facilities as good or excellent.
Of those responding, 16 percent said they used the recreation centers "very often" and 24 percent said "fairly often."
Playgrounds Holding Up
The Post's survey of three recreation centers in each of the eight wards showed that most were in good condition: The grass was cut, there were no physical hazards and equipment generally was usable.
Harrison Playground at 13th and V streets NW, a small recreation area sandwiched between a row of houses and Metro excavation, is well maintained.
Jeffrey Koenreich, president of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association, credits the playground's good appearance to the work of the director, Joe Walker. "It is a small oasis in an otherwise abused area," Koenreich said.
Only two playgrounds -- one in Shaw and another in Trinidad -- had major problems. At the J.F. Kennedy Playground at Seventh and P streets NW, a fence pole jutted into a pathway and heavy, untrimmed bushes obscured a tunnel that connects parts of the playground. At the Trinidad Recreation Center at 1310 Childress St. NE, the stumps of broken benches surrounded a play area, and the grounds were heavily littered with broken glass.
Playground programs are yet another problem, according to many community leaders.
Robert Artisst, president of the Brookland Civic Association and an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said, "we need some real down-to-earth, comprehensive programs. We need arts and crafts. We need to motivate and stimulate their brains, to make them think."
James Parks, president of the Central Northeast Civic Association and an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said the department has good intentions about programs but rarely has been able to deliver on promises.
"Playground directors just give the kids a bat and ball and tell them to go play," he said. "We need more than that."
Woodard said he is attempting to move the department "back to basics" with an experiment on seven playgrounds in Ward 7 this summer. The department has staffed the chosen recreation sites with four or five employees and instituted new summer activities in response to a survey of neighbors.
Woodard said he expects other wards will want what he is offering in Ward 7 and he will tailor new programs to fit community needs. He plans to do that with volunteers.
The Capital City Little League in Ward 3, he said, is an example of how much volunteers can do: They finance, manage, coach and transport the team.
The department gives them the playing field.
SUNDAY -- An overview: an evaluation of District government services. The motor vehicle bureau: the agency that most ignites public passions.
MONDAY -- Street repair: the challenge of maintaining the area's oldest and most beat-up roadways.
TUESDAY -- The building permit office: an agency so understaffed that two-hour waits are commonplace.
TODAY -- Services for young and old: many good programs, but others with glaring deficiencies.
THURSDAY -- Public health clinics: basic health care hobbled by a steady erosion of resources.
FRIDAY -- Public libraries: years of austerity only beginning to be offset by additional funding.
...on parks and recreation
Q. Based on what you know or have heard, how would you rate the quality of District parks and recreation facilities: excellent, good, not so good, poor, or don't you know enough about them to say?
NET NET NOT SO GOOD/POOR......16%
NOTE: Figures are based on a Washington Post telephone survey of 1,505 adult residents of the District Of Columbia conducted May 17-21. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
SOURCE: Washington Post Poll
...On Parks And Recreation
WARD......RECREATION CENTERS.....SWIMMING POOLS....TENNIS COURTS
Ward 1........ 9....................3...............10
Ward 2........ 9....................6...............12
Ward 8........15....................5............... 8