- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

Theodore Coates laughed deeply yesterday, recalling the good times he had as an elementary school student some 70 years ago at the historic Crummell School in the Ivy City neighborhood of Northeast.

“We had a principal there, she gave you a history lesson when you were bad,” Mr. Coates, 75, recalled with a grin. “You walked a chalk line when she got you — them were some good days.”

Things have changed.

“Ivy City has just gone down real bad,” said Bernice Johnson, 24, who’s lived her whole life in the community — a triangle of residential blocks buttressed against the Trinidad neighborhood between Mount Olivet Road and New York and West Virginia avenues.

But a grass-roots effort in Ivy City to prevent the Crummell School from being swallowed up by unwanted development appeared to gain momentum yesterday as Mr. Coates and other former and current residents gathered to share stories about the neighborhood’s history and rally support for pumping life back into the school.

The Crummell School was built in 1911 as one of the city’s first for black children and named after the Rev. Alexander Crummell, an educator and abolitionist. The school slumps, all but abandoned, at the corner of Central Place and Gallaudet Street.

A chain-link fence sags around the school and the sunbaked abandoned lot behind it. Several D.C. police cruisers were parked on Gallaudet Street yesterday adjacent to an abandoned 1980s model dump trunk packed to the brim with debris.

The District declared the Crummell School a historic place in 2002, a classification celebrated by activists who fought for it, though so far it has resulted in little more than fresh plywood over the windows and a new layer of roofing.

Mr. Coates, who now lives in Hyattsville, sat across the table from his brother, Alfred Coates, 77, who also spent his elementary school years at the Crummell School during the 1930s. Their mother, now dead, also went there.

Charles Brown, 52, another alumnus who shared laughs with the Coates brothers yesterday, said the Crummell School is “part of our culture and our history.”

“It was one of the only black schools in the city,” he said.

Once a hub of the community’s life, the Crummell School now languishes about a block south of Dream, the massive nightclub just off New York Avenue. On weekends, Central Place and Gallaudet are among the streets lined with burned-out, lower-income homes that become a packed parking strip for Dream’s clientele.

Yesterday’s gathering was organized by the nonprofit citizens advocacy group Empower D.C. and sponsored by the Ivy City Neighborhood and Oral History Project at the Bethesda Baptist Church, a few blocks from the Crummell School.

Empower D.C. was co-founded last year by Parisa Norouzi, a resident of Columbia Heights in Northwest, who said she helped start the group to bring about sustained improvement in the quality of life of low-income residents across the District.

Miss Norouzi, 27, described yesterday’s gathering as an effort to “document the history of the community” and “celebrate the history of the Crummell School.”

However, she took time to circulate an information sheet, from which she read. It said the “District government has been poised to sell off the school for quite a while — but we are starting to educate them about the importance of this landmark.”

The sheet also accused D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, a Democrat who represents Ward 5, where the Crummell School is located, of secretly pushing plans to develop the school into an early-learning center without consulting the community. Many activists want a multipurpose center instead.

“Orange attempted to pass his legislation on an emergency basis — meaning without a hearing — but luckily it did not go through,” Miss Norouzi’s flier said. “We also know that Mr. Orange has his birthday parties at the Dream Club, whose owner has expressed interest in the property.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Orange yesterday were unsuccessful, as were attempts to contact Dream owner Marc Barnes.

According to published reports, Mr. Barnes has bought multiple parking lots in Ivy City and much of the land surrounding the Crummell School, and has plans to buy the school building from the city and turn it into a privately run community center.

While the goal of a community center seems shared by many, residents at yesterday’s gathering appeared dead set against allowing the Crummell School building go up for sale by the city. Some residents voiced concern that what Mr. Barnes is really interested in is the parking lot.

“We’re working real hard to make sure the city doesn’t sell it,” Miss Norouzi said. “If it’s sold to a private person, then they have the right to do whatever they want with it.”

Miss Norouzi encouraged residents to contact Mr. Orange and Ward 1 council member Jim Graham, a Democrat who heads the council’s Committee on Property Management, to urge them not to allow the property to be put up for sale.

The Crummell School has a history of attracting activists from outside Ivy City who have a deep desire to restore it to its former glory. In the late 1970s, activists moved into the neighborhood and began galvanizing a movement to turn the school into a multipurpose center.

One of them was Susan Craver, 57, who now lives in Arlington. Mrs. Craver attended yesterday’s gathering, recalling a four-year stretch from 1976 through 1980 when the school was transformed into a multipurpose senior center, preschool, community kitchen and continuing-education center.

The effort was halted in 1980 after a suspicious fire damaged part of the property. In the years since, the Crummell School has been largely abandoned.

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