In this city of monuments, the Volta Place playground in Georgetown is a monument to basketball.
"Hoops" has been king at Volta Place for at least the last 20 years. From May to September, every year, players come from every part of town to choose up sides on the two asphalt courts and "have a run."
The players are male and female, black and white, 20 years old and 40, very good and not so good. It's exactly the sort of scene that's so rare in Washington -- a city playground where all kinds of people come, and feel free to come.
But basketball may be about to be shoved out of Volta Place playground. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted 5 to 1 early this month to recommend to the city that the basketball courts be torn out and replaced by tennis courts.
The ANC gave three reasons for its decision: noise, rowdy behavior and basketballs flying over a 14-foot-high fence and into back yards. But there appears to be another, far uglier reason: race.
About 75 percent of the Volta Place basketball players are blacks who live in other parts of town. According to Earl Griffis, a tall, 30-year-old black man who lives in Northeast and who has been a Volta Place basketball regular since 1978, "there has never been a bit of trouble since I've been coming here. And if we ever saw a basketball player break a bottle here, we'd clean it up."
But some nearby homeowners think that if there were no basketball courts at Volta Place, there would be fewer blacks in their neighborhood, and therefore fewer crimes.
These Georgetowners will not say on the record that race is why they want to ban basketball from Volta Place. William Cochran, chairman of ANC 2E, specifically denies it, although he says racial feelings "lurk below the surface in polite society."
Yet some people who live near the playground say off the record that racial fear among their neighbors is the key to the dispute. Several white basketball regulars agree.
"They use code words," said Jim Bruns, a white basketball regular stationed at Andrews Air Force who lives near the playground. "My neighbors are always asking me, 'Where are those other fellows coming from?' In a high-chic area, I guess a gang of black people seems kind of threatening."
Robin Rather, a white 28-year-old who has played "hoops" at Volta Place since she was 13, said the black "regulars" are "one of the best things about this place. I wouldn't have had nearly the exposure to other races and groups that I've had if the basketball courts hadn't been here." As for trouble, "this isn't a very rowdy place," Rather said.
William Cochran says the problem is not race, but the nature of basketball. "It is generally the noise that we have been trying to deal with over the past two years," he said. "It's a problem because basketball is such a noisy game. In my opinion, tennis is very quiet in comparison."
Does he understand the reluctance of his constituents to have black ballplayers in the neighborhood? "Well," replied Cochran, "if I went over and played basketball in a black neighborhood, it would be, 'Those damn white kids.' "
Yet to visit Volta Place is to hear as much noise coming from the two existing tennis courts as from the basketball courts. The loudest voices at the playground one recent evening belonged to a couple on the baseball field who were trying to train their boxer to fetch a stick.
But there is room for compromise at Volta Place -- and precedent for it.
At Kalorama playground, near 19th Street and Mintwood Place NW, the city responded to complaints of basketball noise by installing removable hoops. An attendant takes them down at dusk and replaces them in the morning. As a result, basketball is not played at Kalorama when nearby residents are most likely to be relaxing or sleeping.
F. Alexis H. Roberson, director of the D.C. Recreation Department, has proposed the same solution for Volta Place. "I can sympathize with the residents of the area," she said, "but basketball is a valuable resource for the community. I hope that the removable hoops work."
But removable hoops won't change a thing if they're removed at dusk. No one plays basketball at Volta Place after sunset because it's too dark to see. If the hoops were removed at 5 p.m. instead, the "regulars" could charge that their "prime time" hours were being taken away -- and they'd be right.
Removing the hoops at 7 p.m. would be a fair compromise. In the meantime, however, the biggest need in the Volta Place dispute is for ballplayers and residents to talk to each other, not just about each other. However, that hasn't happened yet, and there's no sign that it will.
Certainly Georgetowners have a right to peace and quiet. But when you live in a city, you do so with certain understandings -- one of which is that public parks are public. To rip out the Volta Place basketball courts would be a giant step backwards. Georgetown should welcome its black basketball regulars as a sign of a vibrant city, not fear them as genies who need to be stuffed back into a bottle.