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Kenilworth Seeks A Place For Kids To Play

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A piece of land in Northeast D.C. once served as the city dump before a recreation center was built on the site.
Jessica Gould
A piece of land in Northeast D.C. once served as the city dump before a recreation center was built on the site.

Outside an apartment complex on Quarles Street in Kenilworth, things are pretty quiet—just a few guys sitting on a bench, smoking cigarettes. But walk down a dim set of stairs, and you can feel the floor thump with the rumble of a bass beat, and listen to the air crackle with the click of pool balls.

"We call this the fun center," says 17-year-old Tiquana Thompson. She says she's spent countless hours hanging out in the basement, which serves hundreds of kids from the surrounding neighborhood. Thompson says they watch movies, hold modeling contests, and play games.

Still, she says the space--only about 700 square feet surrounded by cinderblock walls and exposed pipes--has been pretty crowded since city has torn down the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center a few blocks away.

"We don't have another extra space to have fun at," she says.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, a slice of National Park Service land in Northeast served as the D.C. dump. Two hundred fifty thousand tons of trash was incinerated there each year, causing ash to fall like snow on the predominantly African American community.

"I remember there was a constant complaint of all the soot that would wind up being on people's cars, people's porches," says Dennis Chestnut, who grew up in the neighborhood and now serves as executive director of the environmental organization Groundwork Anacostia River. "It just settled all over the entire community."

Neighbors lobbied officials to shut down the dump, but Chestnut says the children had a different view. "Well one of our favorites was that the Briggs Ice Cream company would dump tubs of ice cream," he syas. "We had it on a schedule, and we knew when they were coming."

In fact, he says it was common for kids to scavenge for toys and bicycle parts. But all that ended one day in 1968, when a little boy playing in the piles was caught in the flames and died. Outraged, local mothers descended on the dump to protest.

"They actually lay down on the roadway preventing the trucks from coming into the landfill," he says.

City leaders decided to cap the landfill, and they eventually built ball fields, a swimming pool and a recreation center on the site. But in 2006, workers uncovered an unexploded shell on the far end of the park. Then, when the city began reconstructing the rec center in 2010, the National Park Service ordered officials to stop because of concerns about contaminated soil.

"Once we completely demolished it, we've been at a standstill and have worked with the park service to determine the path forward," says Jesus Aguirre, director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

Now, all that's left of the rec center is a mound of muddy grass, and Aguirre says it's going to stay that way until he and his colleagues can determine the safety of the site.

"We're not going to move forward with anything until we're assured that it's a place that's safe for recreation purposes," he says.

According to the National Park Service, preliminary tests have identified the presence of lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the soil, and the agency is working on a formal environmental assessment of the area, using the Comprehensive Enviromental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or "Superfund Law," to determine the contamination of the site.

In the meantime, Aguirre says the department has been offering activities at the nearby elementary school and scouting locations for a new rec center.

But William Commodore, who runs the fun center down the street, says he doesn't understand how this could happen in the first place.

"If the soil was contaminated, they shouldn't have built the rec there from the beginning," he says.

Meanwhile, he says, there are other safety issues to consider. "There are a lot of kids hanging out selling marijuana and crack cocaine," he says. "Out on the streets, there's nothing but destruction."

And, in that way, he says, a rec center is about a lot more than fun and games. For his kids, it can also be a matter of survival: "We're just hoping the rec center will be back— and soon."


[Music: "Where's My Place to Play" by Violaine Morning from Where's My Place to Play]

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