Under the Surface in Alexandria
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Under the Surface in Alexandria

Residents say barriers to recreational activities contribute to North Old Town violence.

Charles Houston Recreation Center.

Charles Houston Recreation Center. Photo contributed

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The Andrew Adkins Neighborhood

Violence has become a fact of life in North Old Town. For the last three years, the area west of the Braddock Metro station has seen at least one murder. Last year there were three. Established after a series of revenge killings shocked the neighborhood in 2016, the North End Quality of Life Work Group is nearing the end of a year-long process to develop a plan to help pull the local community out of violence.

Many in the surrounding communities say the draft plan ignores some of the biggest factors leading to local violence.

The Work Group had three main objectives: to develop a work plan to address quality of life issues in North Old Town neighborhoods, examine the causes of violence in these neighborhoods and potential solutions, and to identify public and private resources that can be utilized to improve resident life.

Much of the draft plan involves trying to create a cohesive sense of community in the North End. Proposed actions include block parties and encouraging attendance to community events like movie nights through social media and promotion through Charles Houston and ARHA.

Other improvements focus on improving the safety of the local citizens. Some of that is building trust between the community and the police department with an emphasis on community policing and support for the residential police officer program, but the plan also includes tangible improvements like establishing better streetscape improvements through the Braddock Streetscape Plan.

Hilary Orr, staff liaison from the City Manager’s Office, said that many of the plan’s goals don’t require funding from the city. Many of the plan’s goals involve better advertising and awareness of existing programs. Other proposed programs, offered through the Charles Houston Rec Teen Center, had support from fraternities or corporate sponsorship.

But there remains some skepticism that the plan addresses one of the core problems many local residents say contributes to crime: fee increases and other prohibitive measures at the Charles Houston Recreation Center.

“We have lost the way,” said Kay Koroma, a coach at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. “I see kids on these streets pregnant or on drugs.”

Koroma said one of the problems at the recreation center is the requirement for anyone using the facility carry mail showing they live in the community.

“When I was a kid, you could just show up,” said Koroma. “People there would help you. Now, you can’t fill up a gym. Kids don’t come in here. It’s empty on Friday and Saturday nights when the old Charles Houston used to be packed.”

Mayor William Euille, who grew up in the Berg Neighborhood and serves on the work group, said Koroma may be looking at the city’s past with rose-tinted nostalgia.

“Back then, there were still kids pregnant and on drugs,” said Euille. “Things have changed. It’s a Catch 22. As a kid, we used to be able to go anywhere. But now we need to know [who is in what facility] for accountability. We’re accountable for the safety and security of these kids.”

But Koroma wasn’t alone in his assessment of Charles Houston. Several members of the committee cited unfriendly staff at the facility as a deterrent. Myra Matthews, a member of the group representing the Andrew Adkins Neighborhood, said her two teen children refuse to go to Charles Houston and instead take a bus over to William Ramsey Recreation Center because the staff is friendly and there are better activities. But across all of the recreation departments, Matthews and other members of the group pointed to fees for recreation departments as being one of the deterrents.

Dara Shen, a community member on the Work Group, said on summer nights the local pool is filled almost entirely with white youths even in a community center serving one of Alexandria’s largest black communities. According to the city’s fee compendium, admission to the pool for teenages is $3 or $53 for a season pass. Pool admission was increased for each age group $1 as a resolution approved for the FY 2018 budget. The fees for the Power On Out of School program was increased from $429 to $445 during the school year. Enrollment in most youth sports costs $85, a $10 increase over previous years.

Admission to the recreation center is free. Pursuit of cost-recovery has led to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation gradually increasing fees over the years for use of programs at the recreational facilities

“We do not set out to keep anyone from participating,” said Jack Browand, division chief of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities . “Yes, there have been fee increases. Is there potential for individuals not to participate because of fees? Yes. We do not preclude anyone from participation based on financial means. If there is a need, we have financial assistance programs available. But in response to the current fiscal crisis in the city, we have had to adjust our fees. But any fee increase we do is done through the City Council approval process.”

A fee assistance application is available at the city’s recreation department website. Browand said classes and programs offered through the recreation centers are offered at market price.

Some in city leadership say the costs for these programs are keeping local youths from joining.

“I think the issue of late is how do recreation departments cover costs and maintain facilities with localities tightening their budget,” said Councilman John Chapman. “A practice over the last 10 years in recreation departments across the nation has been to have adjustable fees based on the needs of the facilities to balance the department’s budget and pay for staff. I think Alexandria has taken that tactic as well by coming up with some of the policy that we have surrounding types of events and what levels of fees.”

But Chapman said the getting local youths into the recreation centers can already be a challenge, and adding fees just makes that harder.

“There does need to be an understanding; if these are community or rec centers, we want people in them,” said Chapman. “We need to understand the balance between fees and cost recovery and competition. Getting people in a building, that’s going to be competitive. People are going to want to have other things they want to do.”

For Chapman, there’s no question that the fees have been a large barrier to keeping youths from the local community away from the facilities.

“Yes, we’re pushing people out with the number of fees increasing year after year,” said Chapman. “What city needs to do is look at fee recovery schedule again. Use the opportunity to look at the last couple years of where we’ve had that in place and where it’s been problematic, and where that’s able to shift.”

Euille acknowledged that there might need to be an examination of whether exceptions to the Parks Department’s fee structure could be made for Charles Houston.

The next meeting for the group is tentatively scheduled for Monday, Oct. 16 in the Charles Houston Recreation Center, where a final draft report will be presented. In November/December, the plan will be presented to the City Council.