LANGLEY PARK -- A religiously and racially charged dispute on one of Maryland's most gang-ridden streets is triggering a turf war of David-and-Goliath proportions.
Pitted against each other are the small and financially struggling Langley Park Boys and Girls Club and the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Boys and Girls Club, which has a predominantly black membership, occupies 3 acres at the center of the dispute in a Hispanic neighborhood in Prince George's County that is notorious for Mara Salvatrucha, a violent Central American youth gang known as MS-13.
This past summer, the archdiocese received the county's blessing to adopt the neighborhood and bring relief to the area that officials say is home to the region's "most needy people."
Assisted by state, county and federal funds, the archdiocese is offering to provide many of the needs identified in a 2002 county government assessment of Langley Park. Using $6 million of its own money, the church wants to erect an $11.8 million facility with religious, youth, health and social services geared toward the area's Catholics and Hispanics, including a 580-seat Catholic chapel, a large gymnasium, Latin American youth center, medical and dental clinics, and a Catholic Charities office.
But ground can't be broken until the Boys and Girls Club steps aside - or is evicted.
Club treasurer and basketball coach Greenfair "Brother" Moses III asks, "Why would we give up control and just walk away?"
Former Prince George's County Councilman Peter A. Shapiro, a Democrat who helped broker the deal with the archdiocese and government officials, said it's a matter of time before the church builds its Langley Park center. "It may happen slower than we want, but this will eventually happen," he said. "It will be transformative for the community, and it's exactly what we need in the area."
The land on Merrimac Drive on which the club was built was leased in 1966 by a former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles to the nonprofit club for $10 per year for 99 years. Sawyer Realty Holdings of College Park now owns the property and hundreds of the surrounding low-income apartments. Sawyer Realty's Doug Mueller declined to discuss the situation, except to say he was preparing for litigation because "I can't evict anybody without the court's authority."
The club is run by its president, Julie Moses, and her husband, who live 30 minutes away in Upper Marlboro. She considers the gym a refuge for the neighborhood's minority black children who say they feel threatened by the local Hispanic gangs - including MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
A young musician for a predominantly black reggae band, Drastic Measures, which plays at the club, said MS-13 members harass the band and are constantly trying to goad blacks into fights outside the club.
During a summer dance party at the club, a 17-year-old female member of Drastic Measures was attacked outside by a group of youths who cut her on the throat, police say. Days later, a man nearly lost his hand in a fight nearby when an assailant swung a machete. Police have made no arrests, but they suspect MS-13 in both incidents.
Police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties estimate that there are fewer than 1,000 MS-13 members in their counties, but most of the gang's activity is concentrated in the Takoma Park-Langley Park corridor. Last year, a joint county task force said most of the gang activity in the two counties occurred in a 1.4 square-mile area: Langley Park.
This past summer in Greenbelt, a federal grand jury indicted 19 people accused of being members of MS-13 on charges of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and racketeering. State and local police say the gang has grown into a criminal enterprise in Northern Virginia and Maryland, and is dealing in guns cocaine and prostitution.
Langley Park residents bill their community as "a neighborhood of cultures." It is so heavily immigrant - and many are believed to be here illegally - that community activist William J. Hanna said its population of 16,214 was undercounted in the 2000 census by at least 20 percent.
The archdiocese has pledged not to inquire about the immigration status of the residents it serves. "Our only goal is to help," archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said.
Hanna, a University of Maryland professor of urban studies and founder of Action Langley Park, a nonprofit community group, believes that much of what ails the neighborhood could be relieved by the archdiocese.
But any standoff fueled by race and religion is a formidable hurdle, he said. "You have non-Catholic African-Americans who frequent the Boys and Girls Club versus the neighborhood's predominantly Catholic Latinos; that's the sad part about it," Hanna said.