Whether he gets there using his cane or his motorized wheelchair, Eugene Hughes still relishes unlocking the gates to the Midtown Youth Academy.
He’s 76 now. He grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, learning to fight on the streets. So swift was his punch that he boxed in the Golden Gloves as a teenager.
The way he tells it, Hughes moved to California, got into trouble and ended up spending 27 months in prison. He was back home by the early 1970s, eager to help young people lead lives that were better than his own. So he started the Midtown Youth Academy along 14th Street in Meridian Hill, and dedicated the rest of his life to helping troubled youth discover the keys to success. He gave boxing lessons to teach discipline; he got tutors and computers to help teach everything else.
There are still remnants of more vibrant days at the youth academy. Under dim lights and missing ceiling tiles are framed photos of old students, proud and strong in their boxing stances. Square computer monitors sit next to the processors that used to power them and tangles of old wires that made them useful.
Sometimes, if you walk past the spare wheelchairs and look past a curtain, there will be teenagers in a ring, ready to learn to spar. They will soak in any lesson they can from the white-haired man in the wheelchair, his commands strong, his voice weathered with age.
Outside these walls, there’s a different Washington. Popping up on a street once ravaged by riots are condos, a CrossFit gym and a spinning studio. The academy is now sandwiched between a gay bar and a place that tops its pizzas with arugula and shaved Grana Padano. The idea of a developer tearing this place down makes Hughes clench his fists. This is still his place, and he still believes in his mission.
Over the past few months, Hughes has been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. He is eager to get back out there to his building and keep working with his community. He is still a boxer, and boxers never go down without a fight.
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