On a recent night, Edmund Fleet showed me around THEARC, a town hall complex he runs in Southeast Washington. It’s still something of an open secret that a part of the District once known mostly for homicides is now home to a veritable lighthouse of learning —a $27 million, 110,000-square-foot campus set on 16 beautiful green acres along Mississippi Avenue SE.
“This is my favorite time of year,” said Fleet, standing amid a whirl of ballerinas heading for the facility’s 365-seat, state-of-the-art theater that is modeled after the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. There were klatches of feather-light schoolgirls pirouetting toward rehearsal for Saturday’s premier of “The Nutcracker.”
Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, was adding a professional touch. “Kids need roots and wings,” he told me during the rehearsal. Education is the root — not to mention the organic garden the children tend. “Ballet is the wings,” Webre said. “We teach them how to fly.”
THEARC — Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus — was designed to be a “home away from home” for the thousands of children living in cultural isolation east of the Anacostia River. It was the brainchild of the William C. Smith Co., which created a nonprofit organization, Building Bridges Across the River, to build and operate it.
“This part of the city had lost out on so many opportunities,” said Chris Smith, chairman and chief executive of the company. “We just wanted to make a statement that something of quality could be built here and that people would appreciate it.”
Fleet had been in charge of community services for Smith before being tapped to serve as THEARC’s executive director six months after its 2005 opening. In March, he made the final payments on the building’s construction cost, making THEARC debt-free. This year alone, the town center will serve more than 80,000 people through $11 million in education, arts and recreation activities.
“My heart has always been east of the river,” said Fleet, 43, a third-generation Washingtonian, Howard University graduate and former D.C. public school teacher.
THEARC partnered with the Levine School of Music, the Parklands Community Center, the Washington Middle School for Girls, the Children’s Health Project of D.C., Covenant House Washington, LIFT-DC, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Washington Ballet, among others.
Fleet’s first challenge was to convince youngsters in the neighborhood around THEARC, located at 1901 Mississippi Ave., that the facility was actually built for them.
“They thought it was a private country club or some other exclusive facility,” Fleet recalled. “They couldn’t believe that something so high-end could be for them.”
The building features 20-foot-high windows. No prisonlike concrete slits that allow only shafts of light, but floor-to-ceiling windows across the front with a towering glass-enclosed room on the second floor for dance lessons. Watching ballet practice from the outside, the dancers really do appear to be flying.
“We’ve never had a broken window,” Fleet said.
That alone is astounding. For years and years, you could hardly find a building along that street that didn’t have at least one broken window. And if it was an abandoned building, there wouldn’t be a window that wasn’t broken.
“By making the windows larger, instead of smaller, we let people see what was going on inside,” Fleet said. “They could see their friends taking music and singing lessons, a few at first, and then more and more. We did not put bars on the windows. We were saying, ‘Come in.’ Not, ‘Stay out.’ And we didn’t put metal detectors or security guards in the lobby. When we let kids know that we were serious about this being for them — that a building this nice really belonged to them — they wanted it to stay that way.”
Fleet also made sure youngsters got to know him—one of the few African American men they’d ever met who wore suits and ties to work.
“One day, several of them wanted to know if I had children,” Fleet recalled. “I said, ‘No. I’m not married.’ And they looked at me like, ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ So I had to sit them down and explain that there was an order to these kinds of things: first, you get a job, then you get married — and then you have kids.”
Fleet has since gotten married and has a son.
The night he showed me around, youngsters were buzzing all over the place.
A group of serious-looking young adults headed for classes offered by Trinity Washington University, working on getting associate degrees. Wide-eyed kids popped in and out of the gigantic “sound suits” exhibit on loan from the Corcoran and then split for tutoring sessions and recreation programs at the Boys and Girls Club.
“People from all sorts of backgrounds are here who wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to meet,” Fleet said. “Given the opportunity and a safe space, people soon realize that we all have more in common than we do differences. We serve as a bridge that connects people. That’s why we call it THEARC.”
For previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.