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Club’s Future Still Unclear

Meeting Sheds Little Light on Fate of Boys & Girls Club

In a neighborhood that at times has been poor, ignored, rediscovered and revitalized, residents are grasping for the one key that ties them to all shades of the past: the eastern branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

Here on Southeast Capitol Hill, just around the corner from Lincoln Park, sits the 70-year-old building. Its concrete corridors and metal staircases are still remembered by older residents as a haven during turbulent childhoods — a truth that’s emphasized by peeling paint and dated air conditioners. There’s a gym made of recycled Michael Jordan Nike shoes, a kids’ library with round blue tables, a teen room that showcases an original mural. The “wall of fame” is signed by celebrities who have passed through: Shaquille O’Neill, Tom Cruise, Coach Carter.

It’s not just that residents fear the Boys & Girls Clubs will close all of this for good. It’s the uncertainty: On Monday night, at the third public meeting since September, the club’s officials again told residents that they could not comment on whether the eastern branch would close. After throwing out a possible July closing date at the last meeting, officials now said that speculation had been premature.

“We’re tired of hearing things through the grapevine,” said Thomas Jordan, a lifelong resident who attended the eastern branch when it was integrated in 1960. “We’d like to know what’s going to happen with the club.” [IMGCAP(1)]

But Will Gunn, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, stuck to an explanation he had to repeat many times that night, usually to audible groans: “I wish I had a definitive answer. I wish I did, but I don’t.”

He’s waiting for a study the organization is conducting on all of its clubs, looking for a way out of a $1.8 million deficit. For years, Gunn said, the group’s programs and clubs have been losing money. The eastern branch costs most of all: The old building drives up utility bills. Bringing it up to modern standards could cost $3 million. And Gunn hinted that the neighborhood is changing; 60 of the 90 children who read, write and play within the building’s walls are bused in from other areas.

With all of this counting against the eastern branch, residents are worried the organization’s board will find it cost-efficient to simply close the location. So far, Gunn hasn’t quelled those fears.

“My loyalty is to children. My loyalty is not to a building,” he said. “If I can find a way to serve children more efficiently in another building … that’s something that I’m interested in.”

But some question whether moving the club or closing the building will better benefit the neighborhood. They see the high-tech innovation center, which houses several computers, video equipment and a music studio. They see a large pool that lies empty because of one unfixed leak. They see an indoor basketball court and a game room. Would recreating all of this somewhere else really be cheaper than just fixing it up? Or is the Boys & Girls Clubs giving up on the neighborhood forever?

“Wherever you move, there’s still going to be funding,” said Shelly West, a Kenilworth resident whose 4-year-old daughter, Ronique, attends the eastern branch. “Why not use what you have?”

While participation at the eastern branch is low, residents scoffed at the suggestion that it was due to changing demographics. Instead, they said, it was because the Boys & Girls Clubs neglected to do any outreach in the community. Some nearby residents don’t even know the branch exists, said Will Cobb, an unsuccessful 2006 candidate for the Ward 6 council seat who is spearheading residents’ efforts.

“I realize that as a nonprofit, the expectations are not as high, but they should be,” he said.

For now, the club and residents remain at a standstill. Cobb said he will continue to work on solutions. One idea is to use the building as a community center that houses programs for all ages under one roof, leasing out space to interested organizations and finding money from local groups or from the D.C. government. And Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells promised Monday to work with the community to come up with a solution. The conflict, he said, has revealed that the neighborhood is in need of community services — whether those should solely come through the club or be offered in the Southeast building is uncertain.

But there are still those who remember the building when it was a hub of inspiration and hope. Today, they said, it lies largely ignored, a vestibule to the past just waiting to be reawakened.

“It’s the best club in the city,” Jordan said. “For it to go down like this, I don’t understand.”

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