Weathering Change and Relocation in Washington D.C.

Young D.C., a nonprofit First Amendment education program that publishes an independent newspaper by and for teenagers, spent half its life in the Park Lane Building at 2025 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The building was profiled in the press as an Art Deco tower of nonprofit organizations. That was before our neighborhood was declared part of a high priority business improvement district in the mid-1990s. Then, floor by floor, nonprofit organizations moved out because a wrecking ball was headed in our direction. Today, a glass and steel building stands on the Park Lane’s spot and Young D.C. teen staffers trek to a newsroom in the basement of a condominium on the last block before the Dupont Circle neighborhood becomes Adams Morgan.
Although Young D.C. had to opt for a smaller space, we have made up in innovation what we lack in square footage. Technology has changed in our favor: computers are smaller, as are storage devices for archiving the newspaper. The Newseum, a national interactive museum of the news, has provided meeting space when we need to bring together dozens of teen staffers.
In addition, since 1991, we have frequently partnered in media projects with other nonprofit organizations that have become distribution sites for the newspaper. Along with Young D.C., two of them offer interesting lessons in coping with changing land use.
CentroNia received a decommissioned building from the telephone company; FLY continues to team up with a student club at American University. Neither organization anticipates a reduced demand for their services and certainly the demand for journalism training by Young D.C. is increasing as teenagers can’t fit a j-class into their school schedules or schools discontinue their newspapers. Yet the squeeze on real estate is real, and media professionals and other nonprofits must continue to figure out how to provide high-quality service while the ground threatens to shift beneath them. As the following examples show, creative thinking, smart planning, and strategic partnerships can be critical elements in establishing and keeping a youth media base.
Leveraging Ownership
CentroNia, formerly the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center (CBMLC), received its four-story brick building as a gift from the telephone company in 1995. It had been providing exemplary service to a marginalized community since 1986 in property owned by a neighborhood church. By 1999, when the city announced a Columbia Heights revitalization initiative to take full advantage of the neighborhood’s new Metro Green Line station, CBMLC had successfully completed a six million dollar capital campaign to repurpose the building for its programs. Today, CentroNia teenagers see million-dollar condominiums crowding Metro access.
In the midst of the land rush in 2005-2008, CentroNia leveraged all its advantages and could not be threatened by rent hikes. The nonprofit organization owns its building, which is large enough to house programs for children from pre-school to high school as well as tenants. The tenants fund the maintenance of the building so other resources really only go to sustaining programs. Timothea Howard, program manager for community schools, said CentroNia founder Beatriz Otero knew infrastructure was important. “In Columbia Heights,” Howard said, “people [leading nonprofit organizations] used resources wisely” [1].
Maintaining an Essential Partnership
Facilitating Leadership in Youth (FLY) is a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that grew out of a student club at American University, which remains FLY’s strongest partner. Initially tutoring elementary students from public housing, the AU students cultivated their program into a summer camp and long-term mentoring project. Youth media developed by FLY students have always been based at the summer camp on the AU campus.
When FLY became an independent nonprofit organization, it moved to the Gatepost Center, a property at the eastern foot of the bridge that carries Interstate 295 across the Anacostia River. Gatepost is owned by Kids Konnection, a youth-serving ministry. It provided proximity to the Barry Farms and Park Chester housing projects where the FLY students live. At the end of its lease, FLY opted for a five-year lease on new space just four blocks away. It is now on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, an important thoroughfare.
Blight remediation is an on-going concern in Anacostia, but development doesn’t match the Columbia Heights land rush. The leaders at FLY have had time to work with the young people and their families as redevelopment of the Barry Farms acreage progresses. “Our students view Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue renewal with excitement and hope,” said Candace Hetchler, the community and evaluations coordinator at FLY, “but they are apprehensive about the Barry Farms development”[2]. She said planners’ terms like “affordability” and “credit history” prompt deep concern from families. Guidelines that restrict future tenants to families that do not have a member who has been convicted of a felony make the FLY students anxious, Hetchler added.
Regardless of the pace of the redevelopment in southeast D.C., American University in northwest and FLY maintain a strong partnership. The campus offers all the greenery needed for a summer day camp plus computer labs where FLY students develop their annual publication.
Acknowledging What Can’t Be Done
The mission and experience of Young D.C. differ from that of the other profiled organizations. CentroNia and FLY have youth media components that link to a challenge. Young D.C. is a newspaper. As journalists, the teens inform readers about issues or provide information readers can use. For them, relocation is part of urban life; change is often the source of solid journalistic storytelling. CentroNia and FLY may contract with government agencies to provide services or training. A newspaper, especially one that provides First Amendment education for teenagers, cannot take government money.
Despite the current economic downturn and the pressures it exerts on families, the conversion of blighted blocks to neighborhoods catering to single owners or double-income-no-kids couples is close to complete in the Nation’s Capital. Keeping in mind that the young people we serve have as much, if not more, aspiration as they have alienation, it is essential to continue to provide excellent training in the media that attract and benefit them.
Washington, D.C., is not recession-proof, but it is on a different point on the economic continuum than other parts of the country. For organizations in other regions, opportunities to find space may be presenting themselves now. The experiences of Young D.C., CentroNia and FLY offer elements youth media organizations can incorporate into their budgets, business plans, and actions. Like CentroNia, organizations can bring professional media standards to teenagers eager to learn, offering opportunities in a welcoming environment compatible with gentrified surroundings. Similar to FLY, organizations can use technology and talent available through a major partner such as a university. And, like Young D.C., organizations can adhere to guiding principles that will help clients, board members and potential funders understand that revenue from taxes cannot be accepted by a truly independent newspaper. Here are a few additional suggestions from our work in D.C. about keeping a youth media base:
Don’t take low rents for granted: When Young D.C. learned that the Park Lane building was slated for demolition, it spent a year looking for affordable space. Since we are now in space that is below market rate, the annual budget maintains a contingency line item for relocation.
Look for incubator space: Many non-sectarian organizations, like CentroNia and FLY, have rented space from churches during formative years. An alternative would be government-subsidized incubator space. In, D.C., many incubators have provided space for nonprofit organizations and fledgling charter schools. Check with local governments about the availability of incubator space in your jurisdiction. Forty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed charter school legislation; charter school support groups may provide introductions to landlords providing incubator space.
Be open to opportunities for the gift of space: CentroNia was fortunate to receive a telephone switching station—but the organization’s reputation and track record were outstanding. It had a loyal constituency of students, families and neighbors who attested to its community benefit.
Maintain partnerships: FLY minimizes the number of full-time staffers and relies on university students to provide tutoring services, graphics instruction and technical support for its print media projects. The university campus is also the site for the FLY summer camp. Similar to FLY, Young D.C. relies on longstanding partner organizations for meeting space that will accommodate large groups. The organization relies on volunteer coaches, a collaborative of professional journalists who are alumni/ae of its program, and long-time supporters of newsroom diversity for staff development.
Young D.C., CentroNia and FLY provide tools for young people to process what is happening in their communities, even when they shift and change within an urban environment. It is vital that youth media organizations take the time to process change and adapt to it, in order to continue to serve the many diverse youth in a shifting wave of city change and renewal.
Kathleen Reilly Mannix has been the executive director of Young D.C. since 1996. She is a member of the Youth Editors Alliance and has served on the Student Press Law Center Advisory Council and the Teacher Advisory Board of The Newseum. She is a graduate of George Washington University.
[1] Timothea Howard, Telephone Interview, February 18, 2009.
[2] Candace Hetchler, Telephone interview, February 19, 2009.