City Aims to Buy Youth Club on Hill

Posted June 5, 2009 at 3:36pm

In the nearly two years since the Boys & Girls Clubs closed its Eastern Branch location in Ward 6, the building has stood in disuse, a casualty of the youth organization’s financial woes.

But a push by D.C. councilmembers could lead the city to purchase the building in an effort to revive what had been a bustling locus of community life for nearly 70 years.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, which provides after-school programming for at-risk youth, announced in December 2007 that it would close its Frank R. Jelleff Branch, Eastern Branch, Clubhouse No. 10 and Clubhouse No. 11. In April of this year, they added the Hopkins Branch to the list.

Initially, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s proposed budget for fiscal 2010 set aside $15 million to purchase the Jelleff Branch building. D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray recently proposed legislation that would expand the measure into a $20 million, five-year commitment to also purchase the Eastern Branch (at 261 17th St. SE) and Clubhouse #10 and preserve programming at the Hopkins location.

The funding will not be formally allocated until Gray’s proposal is brought to a vote, although the measure appears to have strong support among councilmembers.

Charles Allen, chief of staff for Councilmember Tommy Wells, said that by working to ensure the Eastern Branch is not sold to the highest bidder as the Boys & Girls Clubs had initially proposed, the city is safeguarding the services the center offers.

“Maintaining the building was just crushing [the Boys & Girls Clubs] financially,— Allen said. “Their solution was to sell it, and the issue for the community was that you lose the programs and see the repurposing of the building.—

The community has struggled to fill the void. In May 2007, Ward 6 residents formed the organization Neighbors United in an attempt to provide services that the Boys & Girls Clubs once administered.

The organization has mostly been working out of Payne Elementary School on Capitol Hill to host after-school and summer programming. Executive Director Jerry May said they have had some success but face the constraints of “very limited space— compared to what the Boys & Girls Clubs offered.

“We are the only provider in the community for youth recreation and recreational development services at this time,— May said. “Without what we’re doing at Payne, the kids would just be hanging out on the street or maybe playing some pickup games.—

The city’s proposed purchase of the Eastern Branch signals that the residents of Ward 6 could find themselves dependent on the government for these services, a shift from the past situation in which the center was a well-established community institution despite being privately owned, May said.

Still, renewing community access to the Eastern Branch’s facilities — which include a dance studio, an auditorium, classrooms and a gymnasium — would be a tremendous boon and could include adults and senior citizens, May said.

“The potential is great,— he said. “There’s no other space in Ward 6 where something comparable could be developed.—

Sasha Bruce Youthwork is another community organization that is anticipating some involvement in the city’s efforts to restore the Eastern Branch to its former role.

Executive Director Deborah Shore said organizations that provide structured activities to youths are an invaluable tool for steering children away from trouble while their parents are away. She also praised the city’s proposal to purchase the defunct buildings, but she noted that this is only half the battle.

“It seems like forward-thinking that the city is going after these buildings and protecting these assets, so my hope is that the city is not so short-sighted as to not fund programming,— she said.