The Boys and Girls Clubs: Cashing out in the DistrictJim Myers, firstname.lastname@example.org
District residents, alas, are often so eager to hear their city is on the upswing that they — and local media — will embrace such claims even when they aren’t so. The latest triumph of gentrification mythology comes from the cash-strapped and foundering Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, which wants to right itself financially by selling off its properties in the District. B&GCGW says membership is down at the clubs because changing demographics have produced a shortage of kids “at risk” in the city. So B&GCGW is packing up, cashing in, and heading for the suburbs. The largest and oldest club in the city, Eastern Branch on eastern Capitol Hill (closer to the packed DC Jail than the US Capitol), will be the first to go, with redevelopment plans to follow at the Jelleff Branch in Georgetown, Club #10 in Columbia Heights (currently propped up by a $500,000 District subsidy) and Club #11 in Ward 8.
For the community around Eastern Branch, B&GCGW’s questionable, if not downright bogus claims about changing demographics seem largely an attempt to hide the organization’s deeper failures: Eastern Branch has been a false front for years, and that’s the main reason membership declined there. Staff turnover was constant. Programs that officials touted for Eastern were often, in fact, not offered -- a slippery practice still in evidence at a community forum in March when B&GCGW CEO Will Gunn listed various programs like football and baseball as ongoing, while few in the audience knew they had not been offered at Eastern for years. At the same time, successful programs that B&GCGW also touted, like the Bren-Car Dancers, actually paid monthly rent for use of the Eastern building while B&GCGW counted participants as its own members. For fifteen years or more, little effort was made to attract kids from the community itself. Outreach was nonexistent. Would-be community volunteers were rebuffed, and offers to bring more kids were sometimes greeted with, “We don’t have staffing for that.” Recently, Eastern mainly focused on contract after-school services for charter school students bused in from elsewhere. Few can remember that last time the Eastern pool had water in it, and the club was shut down on Saturdays and Sundays.
However, the most damnable aspect of B&GCGW’s claim about changing demographics are the serious youth issues B&GCGW and its consultants have so skillfully managed to ignore in their zeal about pricey real estate. Drug gang violence centered at 17th and Independence, SE, a block from Eastern Branch, left a trail of dead and wounded across the community in 2005 and 2006. The park across from the Eastern front door remains a gathering point for drug use and sales. Girl gangs are on the rise at Eastern High and Potomac Gardens. A major theme on the newhilleast listserv, right now, involves reports of wilding kids attacking elderly residents and vandalizing property. Youth issues have been the primary focus at every community policing meeting I’ve attended this year, and a recent Barney Circle session with Mayor Fenty was almost totally devoted to citizens’ concerns about kids in trouble. And here’s what B&GCGW is saying: “Let’s take the money and run.”