First came a sports league that uses the field on weekends. Then the bocce ball players started showing up on Tuesdays.
The largely black and Latino community that has played soccer for years at Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights accepted it peacefully. Just as they welcome anyone to play in their own pick-up games, the players were willing to accommodate the newcomers that wanted to use the field in other ways.
Then they were pushed off the field entirely.
Several dozen people were gathered, per usual, last Wednesday afternoon when a group of uniformed soccer players showed up and announced they were entitled to the field. ZogSports had received a permit to use the field on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights—leaving no other weeknight available for neighbors that call the space their second home.
"This is our way of life. After work, everyone is here on the field," says Nico Mondesir in Spanish. "This field is our community."
When he moved to Columbia Heights about two years ago from the Dominican Republic, he found pick-up games that were open to everyone, regardless of age, race, or ability.
"The only time we don’t come out to play is when there's a lot of snow," says Wilbur Rosales, who has lived in the gentrifying neighborhood for 22 years, in Spanish.
"We’ve always come here—back when the field looked like this," he adds, pointing to gravel at the edge of the field, which had artificial turf installed in 2009.
Since then, the players have been pooling their money to replace the nets—collecting a dollar here, five dollars there, until they reach the $200 that it costs to buy replacements. "They last a year, no more," Rosales says.
The neighbors have also kept the area clean, and they make room for kids to play on the field's edge or in the games themselves. Rosales' 14-year-old daughter often joins in with the group of largely adult men.
"This is the go-to spot for everyone in the neighborhood," says James Akinsanya, who grew up in Columbia Heights and frequently joins the pick-up games. "It’s right here. It's easily accessible, and it's a pretty nice field. We come over here and we take care of it and we play soccer, that’s about it."
So when the league players showed up, the group was confused. There was a language barrier for some, but they also didn't really understand the situation itself; nobody had ever had a permit to play soccer on a weeknight. Everyone usually just showed up and joined in.
The community invited the league players to get in their rotation—typically ad hoc teams form and play for ten minutes before rotating to a different team—but the new group declined.
Frustrated and upset, the neighborhood players refused to go. A city official showed up and explained that, indeed, the league players had a permit.
One of the community members decided to take down the nets that they had collectively bought. A police officer showed up and gave him a fine and a five-year ban on using city fields, according to several people who witnessed the interaction.
The permit issued to ZogSports costs $95 an hour, for a total of nearly $4,000 for the summer . A spokeswoman for the company said that they plan to stay.
"We have 120 players scheduled to play at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School field for the 17 days remaining on our current permit," ZogSports' general manager Kendra Hansen said via email. "We hope to fulfill our commitment to them this season."
For participants to join in, it costs $1,200 per team.
"Everyone who is here are neighbors. I know the majority of them," says Rosales. "This is the only diversion we have."
Before the league players arrived last night and the community meeting started, Gonzalez surveyed the field, where groups of men were standing around and informally kicking balls around.
"Usually right now people would be playing [a game]," he said. "But since they know people will be playing here, they're just standing around, afraid they’re going to get kicked off."
Added Mondesir: "I feel displaced ... You have to understand, this is destroying a way of life, and a community."
After coming under fire for preventing neighborhood soccer players from using a popular Columbia Heights field, a sports league has decided it will no longer utilize the space.
ZogSports, which paid nearly $4,000 to reserve the field on the three remaining open weeknights, initially said they planned to remain throughout the summer.
But after an outcry from the community over the privatization of a treasured neighborhood space, the company announced it is relinquishing the space.
The neighborhood players say they'd be welcome to come back to the Tubman field to join in their pick-up games.
"If every member from ZogSports wanted to come play soccer, we would say welcome. We're more than happy to play with you," says Gonzalez, after learning that the community would apparently be getting its field back. "It's not about winning and losing. It's always been about being fair and loving to everyone."
Typically, somewhere between 60 and 100 people (including children) show up to the field, according to Wilbur Rosales, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. Ad hoc teams form and play for about 10 minutes before rotating off to give other players some field time.
"This is the beautiful game," says Gonzalez. "This game is about bringing people together, not setting people apart."