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Bursting at the seams

Neighborhood outgrows new rec center, seeks a gym

(Published March 25, 2002)

By BRIAN BRADFORD

Staff writer

Three years after receiving a new and improved recreation center, the Eckington neighborhood has already outgrown the facility.

More than 1,200 children have memberships to use the Harry Thomas Sr. Community Center, located at Lincoln Road and S Street NE. Neighborhood residents say the centerís popularity is welcomed, but a gymnasium is needed.

"There arenít any gyms anywhere in this neighborhood," said Lionel Taylor, the centerís director. "A gym would alleviate a lot of the problems we have around here."

The closest recreation center gymnasium is at Langdon Park, some 20 blocks away.

Harry Thomas centerís four boys and two girls basketball teams scramble around to find places to practice. St. Martinís Church on North Capitol Street allows the smaller kids to practice in its basement and Hyde Public Charter School, housed is the former Langley Junior High, is home to the other teamsí practices.

"Those facilities help, but when we send coaches out to practice basketball with their teams, that narrows the staff we have here at home, where we still have a large, steady in-come of kids," Taylor said.

Four D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation employees are assigned to Harry Thomas and two youth ambassadors volunteer time at the center. The center has four cheerleader teams, five football teams, a physical fitness class for women, a karate class and a boxing class.

The center has a computer lab, with eight computers, that is the size of a one-person office. The room that was designed to train boxers is too small for a boxing ring. So instead, the room is now used for after-school study hall and then cheerleading practice. The heavy bags, speed bags, weight benches and other boxing equipment have been transferred to a dimly lighted basement.

The center was designed without closets. Throughout the building, 40-foot ladders, cleaning supplies and athletic equipment sit in the corners of every stairwell. Football equipment is stored in the basement electrical room and swimming poolís locker rooms.

"We knew the center was inadequate when we were cutting the ribbon," said community activist Rick SoWell. "We were lobbying during the [Sharon Pratt] Kelly administration, and they just didnít have the expertise to find outside backers to develop an adequate program."

In the summer, the small swimming pool receives bathers from Edgewood to Banneker. There is only one outdoor basketball court that causes constant confrontations over usage, and the new jungle gym equipment doesnít have swings. A multipurpose field was never completed, so the centersí football, baseball and soccer teams havenít had a home game in three years.

"That bothers the kids," said Taylor, who has been a resident of the Eckington neighborhood for more than 30 years.

Behind Taylorís office sits what used to be McKinley Technical High School. Inside the old school is one of the school systemís largest gymnasiums. Community leaders are hoping that when McKinley reopens as the cityís premier high-tech high school, the kids from the Harry Thomas recreation center will get to use the schoolís gym, field and computer labs.

"The school system and the recreation department have never been able to agree on use of facilities. The recreation departmentís largest expenditure is rent to D.C. public schools," SoWell said.

Still, SoWell said he would rather share a campus atmosphere, where children attend elementary, junior high and high school on the same campus on which their recreation center sits.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator