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Turning Their Back on City Kids

Just six years ago, when Michael Jordan was the guest of honor at the Boys & Girls Clubs' Eastern Branch on Capitol Hill, the brass of the organization couldn't be more proud of the spiffed-up building, spanking-new computer lab, freshly renovated gym and the hundreds of kids who were getting a second chance because of the club.

That was before the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington decided that the grass -- and donations from fat cats -- might be decidedly greener in the suburbs than in tired old city neighborhoods.

Last week, the Boys & Girls Clubs announced plans to sell off four D.C. clubs, shuttering the 70-year-old Eastern Branch, almost certainly closing the Jelleff Branch in Georgetown/Glover Park -- the only club in the city that makes money -- and seeking development deals that would include new clubs to replace facilities in Columbia Heights and Congress Heights.

Suddenly, the Eastern Branch, which the Boys & Girls Clubs eagerly touted to me in 2001 as a shining symbol of how it was reaching at-risk kids, is a decrepit, unsalvageable relic of a time before gentrification, a place that's not needed anymore because so many affluent whites have moved into an area that had been mostly poor and black.

What nonsense. Literally across the street from the Eastern Branch, I went door-to-door last year with church volunteers delivering food to families who routinely run out of cash and food stamps by mid-month. Yes, some rowhouses there sell for a half-million more than they did a decade ago, and yes, some families have been priced out of the area. But the neighborhood the Eastern Branch serves is still majority black, majority poor and teeming with kids who could use a boost.

So why is the Boys & Girls Clubs turning its back on large parts of Washington and focusing on Prince George's, Fairfax and other suburbs? A great many kids in need live in places that don't yet have clubs -- new facilities in Manassas and Gaithersburg are among the most popular clubs -- but the real issue here is real estate.

"What's really essential for us is to serve as many children as possible that need us," says Will Gunn, president of the clubs. "And a valuable asset we have is the real estate we have in certain areas."

It's all about the Benjamins, folks. Enter a group called Venture Philanthropy Partners, founded by Washington area tech moguls Mark Warner (the former Virginia governor), Raul Fernandez and Mario Morino, who recruited like-minded rich people to invest in charities that work with poor children. The investor donates big money to organizations willing to run themselves like a sleek, bottom-line-oriented business. Venture agreed to invest $3.5 million in the Boys & Girls Clubs after advising the charity to "ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the organization" by changing its priorities to "derive the maximum financial benefit from its real estate assets," as a report by the investment group puts it.

Translation: Sell off city clubs that sit on land that would make developers salivate.

The Eastern Branch sits on 17th Street SE near rowhouses that have shot up in value. As a result, Gunn says, there are only 298 children living within a mile of the club whose family income is under 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Contrast that with 4,100 such children living near the club across the Anacostia River in Southeast.

The Jelleff club is a four-acre complex with a gym, field, pool and parking lot, just off Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown Historic District. Gunn says that property would sell for upwards of $20 million, but Jelleff's many defenders argue that fantasies of condo development would almost surely be dashed because the club is subject to historic preservation rules, abuts National Park Service land and lies on top of the city's main aqueduct. Develop that.

Like many club leaders, Denis James, who has been on the Jelleff board for 24 years, says the clubs' new focus ignores the success Jelleff has had in breaking through Washington's racial and economic divides, bringing together kids from all sections of the city.

"There are so few places to play in this city, so little open land," he says. "The clubs see their future marketplace as Prince George's County; they just want to get the money and get out of the city. We're viewed as the country-club Boys & Girls Club, but Jelleff is truly a melting pot of kids from all over."

Another Jelleff board member, Melinda Roth, echoes a complaint made by many longtime volunteers, saying the decisions to sell off D.C. clubs were made in a secretive process that excluded those who use the facilities.

"The clubs are supposed to be a community haven, open to everyone," Roth says. "Jelleff is the most racially, economically diverse club we have. What the clubs are saying now is that as areas re-gentrify, we don't need to be there. As neighborhoods change, do you pack your bags and leave?"

By Marc Fisher |  April 29, 2007; 9:24 AM ET
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Comments

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It could be that the new leadership at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington are turning their backs on a past way of dealing with urban and at risk youth which no longer work in today's society. Rather than remain wedded to old useless buildings in a major state of disrepair serving a declinig client base, the new CEO, Will Gunn, and his Board are looking at ways to develop and fund new programs serving the largest number of youth. Rather than criticize them, we should be supporting their efforts and wishing them success. Change, or the threat of change, is always difficult.

Posted by: District Resident | April 29, 2007 11:39 AM

Most American cities include among their populations people who could afford to live anywhere, large numbers of them. They live in the city because they like what cities represent, convenience, vibrancy, diversity, a certain grit; things they can't get in Tysons. Members of this demographic who share these values have been here for years. Sadly what DC is attracting are new residents who are coming for the real estate investment and would be most happy living in Epcot Center. Hopefully they will either see the long term damage of many of their changes before they make the city no different than a mall in the outer 'burbs with more compact housing. Close your eyes in the Seventh Street Corridor on a night when there is no game at Verizon and you could be at Bowie Town Center......

Posted by: CW | April 29, 2007 12:39 PM

CW: If that *certain grit* includes the crappy service and substandard food / goods we DC residents have been subjected to for decades, then I'd gladly trade some of that for the Fuddruckers on 7th Street. At least they don't give me attitude, the food is reasonably hot, and the staff's main goal doesn't appear to be to get me to leave so they can go back to doing nothing.

Posted by: Hillman | April 29, 2007 2:34 PM

Instead of focusing on the positives or negatives of 7th St. NW, we should be discussing Marc's column about the boys and girls clubs. Perhaps there is value to allocating resources to the suburbs, but to do so at the expense of downtown clubs seems like folly. I am a regular user of Jelleff and I feel that it is an ideal representation of a community center. The fields are constantly busy with baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse games, the gym often filled with basketball and karate, and the walls of the facility are covered with art created by children during the many classes offered. My experiences also lead me to believe that just because the club is located in Georgetown, to assume that the patrons are all from well-to-do families is simply wrong. Jelleff is a true melting pot, and as such, it is an asset to everyone in the city. Surely we deserve a place to play, too. This is one DC resident urging the city and the Boys and Girls Club to save Jelleff!!

Posted by: Eric | April 29, 2007 3:46 PM

Hey Resident, turn on your sarcasm detector. The building is not the slightest bit decrepit, and to call it useless is insane. It was renovated SIX YEARS AGO. Fisher is pointing out the disingenuousness of the BGCGW board in calling the facility outdated as an excuse to sell it for millions. Funny, Barney Circle residents five years ago claimed there were TOO MANY at-risk kids in the area to allow a Boys Town facility at 14th & Penn. Now it seems there are NOT ENOUGH at-risk kids to justify running a BGC. Trust me, both myself and Fisher live within a few blocks of the facility, and the client base is MASSIVE in this neighborhood. If BGCGW would do even the tiniest bit of outreach, the place would be bursting at the seams.

Posted by: Other District Resident | April 29, 2007 3:46 PM

The Eastern Branch of the Boys Girls Club should not remain open for Sentimental Values of the past. The facility is outdated, in need major costly updating, has no outdoor space, has low attendance from suburban MD not from within the neighborhood, its a wasteful financial drain and demographics of the neighborhood have changed. I know because the BG Club Bldg is within viewing distance of my home. Today, its 2007, not 1967, its the MD / VA Suburbs where the vast majority of Children are living and the BG Club isnt meeting this generations needs. Closing down facilities in the city will allow the proper resources to be transferred out to where the large numbers of youth are today, in the surburbs. Some neighborhood activists say SAVE Eastern Branch, IMHO, I see nothing there worth saving or clinging onto, let a new structure replace the old one, bring a new life into 261 17th St SE and our community. I fully understand and respect the Boys Girls Club Board and their intelligent decision to close it. Other folks may not, your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 29, 2007 7:04 PM

Saving buildings and saving services aren't the same thing. It's not credible to argue that there aren't kids in this neighborhood who couldn't have benefited from these services. According to a staff person at the club's own open house earlier this year the 60ish children bussed in come from a charter school less than a mile away. I don't much care about the building one way or another, though I understand why alumni would. Every year neighbors complain about nuisance activities from youth with to much time on their hands as the weather warms up. With Eastern High School and the Rosedale Rec Center each slated to close for renovations over the next two years and probably over an overlapping period - neighbors ought to be concerned about an evaporation of services for youth. I understand that the B&GC needs to deploy their limited resources as strategically as possible. I don't understand how you can argue that there are not youth in this area to serve.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 29, 2007 9:53 PM

I've driven by this building several times. You mean it is occupied. I thought it was abandoned. You mean they actually allow children to go in there.

I think DCRA should be contacted for an inspection.

Posted by: Hill Mom | April 29, 2007 10:37 PM

I live two blocks from the club on 14th street. I think Marc has some idealized view of what they do that is not based on any current reality. The club closes at 7:00 pm which is useless to keep kids off the streets in my neighborhood. I wrongly assumed they had midnight basketball etc. Come to 14th around 9:00pm and watch the 20 or 30 kids (heck come when the club is open and you will see them hanging outside and not INSIDE the building) standing around bored. We have had three shootings in the neighborhood just in the last week. If I thought the club was actually going out to the street to try and recruit kids, or stayin open during the most volatile hours of the day then I would be the first to support them. But according to Marc, just staying open , but not doing anything productive is good enough. Unfortunately that attitude permeates the old school of thinking about much of DC. We need results. Also, lets be clear, they are no proposing to close the 14th, only build on top of it and if thats what they need to do to get money to stay open later then I am all for it. But right now, its a huge ugly building with no real purpose or mission on 14th street.

Posted by: JM | April 30, 2007 10:57 AM

Raul Fernandez and Mark Warner?

Figures.

What say we being Carlyle Group into this, too?

Posted by: Bedfellows | April 30, 2007 11:04 AM

JM: You said it well. A few folks trying to justify saving a relic from an idealized past. I notice not one writer said they volunteered at the various clubs.

Posted by: A Neighbor | April 30, 2007 12:41 PM

Well I do indeed volunteer (in fact I was quoted in Marc's article) -- and this is a dysfunctional Boys and Girls Club management making a very short sighted ("show me the money") decision. For the two police clubhouses (including 14th street as mentioned in the comments), there will be a requirement to include a club in the future redevelopment plans. But for Eastern and Jelleff, they opted to purposefully exclude that requirement. They also conducted these "studies" in secrecy, never consulted the community in the case of Jelleff, and believe the cash inflow will somehow set the ship on the right course. However, as an insider, the whole things lacks any strategic vision. They will likely fritter away any money raised -- plus the intention is to take the money raised to "serve kids in greater need." The whole way of judging this is by changing the mission of the organization to be all about kids under the poverty line.

I strongly believe Boys and Girls Clubs are for ALL KIDS. All kids are at risk for the same things -- drugs, drinking (and driving), failing out of school, gangs, teenage pregnancy, eating disorders, etc. The clubs are meant to be a haven for all kids and no one needs to check tax returns at the door to see if a kid "qualifies" to play in the basketball league or benefit from the many excellent programs.

Jelleff has 900 kids from all over the area in its winter basketball league. Kids from every economic/racial spectrum and from public/charter and private schools. It is a true example of a reflection of the country and desgregation in a very segregated city. Do we really want to turn our backs on these kids? Do we really want these historic landmarks to become even more condos that promis ecity living at its best? Do we really want to sit and allow mismanagement to pillage the assets and take programs out of DC? Believe me, there are sufficient users of these facilities and better ways to be able to take cash out and renovate the sites without closing them and selling the land conpletely.

I hope any gentle readers wanting to help support the requirement to maintain clubs at (or near) these sites will get involved and contact either Jelleff or Eastern branches.

Posted by: Melinda | April 30, 2007 3:59 PM

Reap what you sow. Marc, weren't you a big advocate of density? I mean, if everyone is just crazy to bring in thousands more people, the obvious place for those people is a large building. If the media spurs the gov't to get on board, then the developers will take notice. Land prices will be driven up. "Everyone" is happy. What do you expect with this kind of greedy fever you are cheering on???

Posted by: Anonymous | May 1, 2007 7:18 AM

Let's follow the money:

1.How much do the directors of the BGCGW get paid? Col. Will Gunn? Think raises/bonuses are in the future picture?

2. What is the "maximum financial benefit" business plan after selling out the kids who don't really matter?

3. What is the real value of Jelleff Branch given historic designation, park abuttment, massive neighborhood protests and very real threat of boycott of any development there? What is the FAR and zoning of the land?

Posted by: DC lifer | May 8, 2007 2:14 PM

DC Lifer-Are you nuts? The 95 member board serve for FREE...as a community service, and should be applauded for making a tough decision that is in the best interest of all DC youth, not just the privileged. The BGCGW board has an obligation to follow its mission. Thousands of kids are in desperate need in NE and SE DC, and yet the Jelleff crowd want to hold THOSE kids ransom by not being willing to face reality!
Lets step up and do the right thing and raise the funds to buy Jelleff at a fair price, knowing that even if we overpay, every dollar goes to a very worthy cause, the kids in DC who need BGCGW the most and DON'T have a club!
And while I am at it...Marc Fisher...next time you run a column that makes you a laughingstock, you really ought to consider tha perhaps someone is feeding you a bunch of lies and distortions.
Leaving DC for the burbs? The outfit that just opened the nicest Boys & Girls Clubs in the NATION in Anacostia, where the kids had nothing? Check your facts next time and avoid embarassment!

Posted by: DC Born & Raised | May 12, 2007 9:50 PM

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