The Washington Activity Center was the place where a then-12-year-old Sylvia Garcia danced with a boy for the first time. The women who ran the activities at the center taught Garcia about African dance, food and fashion — aspects of a culture she never learned about in school textbooks.
Garcia, now 34, and her older sister, Adeline, used to save up their money to buy snow cones and popcorn for 10 or 15 cents a pop. And even when they didn’t have enough money to buy the syrupy cones, the women would give them treats.
“That is where we went,” Sylvia Garcia recalled. “We’d wake up in the morning. We had to clean the house and do our chores, and then we’d go over to the center. We’d go after school and we’d take a peek and see who is in there.”
For decades now, the “center” as residents call it, has been the local hot spot for the children of the Washington/Escobedo Neighborhood.
But now the future of the center is uncertain. The Washington Activity Center, along with the Jefferson and Webster Recreational Centers in Mesa, may have their hours reduced if a sales tax proposal on the May 16 ballot fails.
The center depends on sales tax revenue to maintain after-school hours. The center would be open only on weekends and minimally during the summer, according to a list of possible budget cuts compiled by the city.
The city predicts cutting more than $100,000 from the three centers, if the sales tax measure is defeated. A figure for the Washington center alone was not available.
The City Council will discuss the list at a meeting March 29, and the fate of the center won’t be known until after the May vote.
The center is on the Booker T. Washington Park grounds, surrounded by a community predominantly of blacks and Hispanics. The low-income Washington/Escobedo Neighborhood is bounded by University Drive, Mesa Drive, Center and Eighth streets.
At 2:30 p.m. daily, the center comes to life with pingpong, pool, basketball, dance lessons and crafts.
“We were always around a positive atmosphere,” said 37-year-old Adeline Garcia, who credits the center with having “built her character” after her mother died when she was 13.
“Whatever was happening with drugs over there, they kept it clean here.”
The Washington Activity Center is the oldest and the only city-run center that services a specific neighborhood. The other two recreation centers operate in conjunction with Mesa schools.
It dates back to the 1950s when it was known as the North Lewis Recreation Center on Sirrine Street. According to “You’ve Gotta Have Heart!,” a book by Herm Funk, the original center was constructed from walls and partitions taken from Williams Air Force Base barracks.
A segregated school for blacks and Hispanics once sat on the grounds of the center’s current location at 55 E. Fifth St. That building was eventually demolished. In 1977, the city established and began funding the current Washington Activity Center.
The park and the center have proved invaluable to a community that, unlike many in Arizona, is not bounded by walls or fences.
On a recent afternoon, residents sat outside on porches where they could watch their children and grandchildren play at the park. Many here have grown up sitting on porches. It is a part of their culture.
“If someone moves (here), then I’m going to know who you is,” said Wardeaen Corder, who says the center helped create an atmosphere that makes her feel comfortable walking home alone from church. “I’m going to know your name.”
When a community member dies, the surrounding churches use the center to eat and congregate after the funeral service.
Although the Washington Activity Center probably serves a smaller portion of the Mesa population, it has many repeat visitors, said Terri Palmberg, Mesa’s assistant director of parks and recreation.
“Washington is very unique and distinct. It has a very small clientele of repeat users, and it’s probably more critical in their world,” she said.
That’s the way the kids took it on Thursday afternoon when they were asked about what they’d do if the center reduced hours.
“Oh my God! That’s going to be hard because I love coming here,” said 10-year-old Tyra “Tybug” Hamilton when she heard about the financial situation. “I’ve been coming here for a long time. Ever since I was a baby. It would shut us down.”
The kids expressed anger and disappointment.
“It’s a place to keep kids out of trouble,” said 12-year-old Anthony Huff. “When we come here, we have staff that cares about us.”
Four days a week, boys and girls head to the center where an instructor teaches them to move their bodies to the beats of hip-hop and reggaeton.
The kids free-style to the beat of Daddy Yankee’s “Rompe.”
Eliminating after-school hours would leave kids scrambling to fill a void, residents say.
On Sundays, when the center is closed, the kids don’t know what to do with themselves, said resident Sandra Garcia. Some resort to flipping garbage cans.
“If they don’t have a center, a lot of the kids would just be running around doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I think if they closed it down, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” she said. “I think we’d have a lot of lost kids.”