The answer, it would turn out: too long.
In 2015, seven years after Williams submitted his testimony, that rec center still wouldn’t exist and he would no longer be around to fight for it. He was found shot to death in the streets he had once asked officials to provide an alternative to.
Fast forward to now, 13 years after Williams gave that testimony. The mayor has changed and the city’s population has changed, but the struggle in Ivy City remains on a loop. That rec center still doesn’t exist, and another generation of children are pleading for it, wondering how long they will have to wait.
“Their wishes have been so simple — just to have a safe place to go, to play, to do simple after-school activities,” Parisa Norouzi, who has worked with Ivy City families for about two decades, tells me on a recent evening. “When kids are from this neighborhood and from low-income families, their world is very small. This is their whole world.”
This is a small neighborhood in Northeast Washington that doesn’t have a tree-studded park to offer shade, a playground that is free of hypodermic needles, or a community center where residents, old and young and in between, can gather to celebrate, mourn or organize. When community activists recently met with residents for a tenants meeting, they were forced to rent a house. They jokingly dubbed it the “Ivy City Clubhouse,” making the arrangement sound as if it were born of choice and not of desperation.
Norouzi, who is the executive director of Empower DC, an organization that works to stop the displacement of low-income Black residents from the city, describes seeing children in Ivy City “grow up with just a sense that there is nothing for them,” while knowing that city officials hold the power to easily change that. Community members have for decades called on the city to renovate the boarded-up Crummell School — which was built in 1911 to serve African American children in segregated Washington — and turn it into a multigenerational rec center surrounded by greenery and a playground.
“It’s pretty simple — the city owns the land, controls the land and the mayor has it within her power to do the right thing,” Norouzi says. She describes it as the right thing not just for low-income residents who have long lived in Ivy City, but also for wealthier newcomers who have moved into neighborhood homes and condominiums in recent years. “Everyone would benefit. Some people think it would be the bridge builder.”
Like in many gentrifying neighborhoods in the nation’s capital, in Ivy City, sharing a Zip code doesn’t means sharing the same experience of a place.
In an article by my colleague Paul Schwartzman about the fight over the Crummell property that was recently published on the front page of The Washington Post, a 15-year-old girl named Mya Stuckey describes not knowing anyone who goes to The Lane Social Club, a privately operated play space in the neighborhood that has a fee to enter.
“It’s not for my part of the neighborhood,” the teenager is quoted as saying.
Unsaid, but left lingering in that sentiment, is that it’s for the other part of the neighborhood: the one with $800,000 condominiums, rooftop dog runs and businesses that count on people having money to splurge, such as breweries, distilleries and a tavern that allows ax throwing.
The article describes lawmakers as agreeing that the two-acre Crummell property should offer neighborhood children an outlet, but disagreeing on how to fund it. “In the latest twist, Bowser and a key lawmaker are in a stalemate over whether new, mostly market-rate housing is the way to finance the multimillion-dollar makeover,” it reads. “If their dispute is not resolved in the next few weeks, Crummell could remain fallow for years to come.”
Fallow for years to come. That is the key phrase. For many in the community, the fight over that space has already lasted too long.
Children who have placed their hopes in getting a community center have become adults with their own families — and some never got to reach those milestones. A photo of Williams published by The Post after his death shows him standing with former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty. There is no telling whether a rec center would have changed Williams’s fate, but it would have shown that the city cared enough to try.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose district includes Ivy City, has said he will refuse to support zoning that is needed to allow housing on the Crummell grounds unless Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pledges $20 million for renovations. He has also called on her to fund a study on how the influx of new housing would affect residents, saying that the city’s “one-dimensional focus on building for newcomers has displaced many longtime residents, and I refuse to let that happen in Ivy City.”
What happens next in Ivy City will reveal the city’s priorities — not just in that neighborhood but also when it comes to gentrification across the District.
It will reveal whom the city deems worthy of investment.
The money officials have put into other improvement projects in the District has not gone unseen by people in Ivy City. They noticed when the city gave $50 million to the NoMa neighborhood to create parks, playgrounds and green space. And they noticed when the city invested much more on a streetcar project.
In a video titled “Ivy City Need A Rec,” which has drawn nearly 2,000 views on YouTube since Empower DC posted it five years ago, a young man raps at one point: “They got 200 million for the streetcar, but they can’t put a rec on my block, dawg. . . . Tell me how many times do we have to ask? Everybody got one. Do we have to be last?”
That young man is Percy Williams’s younger brother, Antwan Williams.
Norouzi says that he has been fighting for what his brother can’t and that the stakes in getting neighborhood children a safe place to play recently got even higher for him. He now has his own son, a child he hopes won’t have to wait too long.
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