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Ethel Davis was a tomboy growing up. As a girl, she wasn’t interested in learning to be a “proper lady,” but to this day she still remembers how welcomed she always felt at the Girls Club of San Diego, where she played sports instead.

For decades starting in the late 1950s, it was a place the community of Logan Heights entrusted with its daughters — a safe place where girls could go after school for homework help, fun with friends, or advice from trusted adults.

Today, the club, long a symbol of pride for the community, is facing an uphill battle for its life.

Fifty years after it first opened its doors in Logan Heights, its front gates are padlocked and weeds are popping up. It hasn’t operated any programs for several months. Within weeks, the Girls Club could be forced officially to leave the city-owned site it has occupied since 1958.

The problems come mostly from within. Since 2007, its programs for young girls have fallen victim to infighting among board members and staff, unpaid debts, and the loss of state recognition as a non-profit.

The unraveling could not have come at a worse time.

The club’s long-term lease for the plot it occupies in Logan Heights Memorial Park expired last year, and the city, which owns the land, has declined to renew, citing the organization’s disarray.

The city is in the process of forcing the club out, and the City Attorney’s Office says it will seek bids from organizations interested in moving in.

A Club with History

Behind the acrimony is a once-sterling history. Over the decades, the Girls Club nurtured poor neighborhood girls, then their daughters, and eventually their granddaughters, with after-school tutoring, socialization, and athletic programs.

It was privately established by the community at a time when Logan Heights had few local institutions to claim as its own.

Many of the women who have been long affiliated with the Girls Club credit the influence of Zenola Maxie, who died early this year.

The longtime club board member and local beauty shop owner guided the organization with a vision that all girls, even the poor, could grow to lead productive and respectful lives. That meant all girls, not only the wealthy, could be debutantes and presented at formal parties as young women. For four decades, the club thrived under its adoptive matron.

For weeks now, a group of many of these girls, now women, have met at Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park to try to reorganize the club’s leadership and present themselves to the city as committed to reviving the ailing organization and once again becoming a valuable resource to Logan Heights’ girls. They hope to convince the city to stop the eviction process.

“I am the result of women who gave of themselves to us girls,” said Gloria Tyler-Mallory, one of the women. “It’s a shame to see what time has done to this place so needed in the community.”

The trouble started not long after Maxie grew sick and withdrew from her day-to-day involvement with the club, said Ethel Davis, who has led the ad-hoc group’s efforts and has tried to retrace the club’s path to near-collapse.

Since 2007, the club has failed to file tax forms required to maintain its tax-exempt status. That compromised its ability to raise funds, Davis said.

State records show the club’s status as a non-profit corporation has been suspended. The club also faces a lawsuit from Wells Fargo over a $10,000 unpaid loan taken out to cover the club’s dwindling revenue, according to court documents.

The club’s most recent board president dismissed its longtime executive director over disagreements about the club’s management.

“It was like a domino effect,” Davis said. “One thing led to another, and everybody kind of dropped the ball.”

President Dismissed

Now, there is disagreement over who is even running the Girls Club.

In October, members of the board of directors, led by its vice president, dismissed board president Clifton Blevins. He, in turn, refused to acknowledge the dismissal, calling it “illegitimate,” and has continued meeting with some members of the original board.

In an interview, he said he remained president of the Girls Club and was working to restore its programs.

He turned use of the club’s building over to an organization called San Diego Creative Community Solutions, whose website says it is a nonprofit established last year to provide programming for children. But it’s not clear what the organization does.

Repeatedly asked whether her organization was running programs in the Girls Club building, Jennifer Jimenez, one the community’s group’s vice presidents, demurred. “We’re really thinking of how to make this a positive place for children,” she said.

Separately, the club board’s original vice president, Davis, and others have elected new officers and met weekly to hash out bylaws in an attempt to convince the city to renew the club’s lease.

The city said other organizations have expressed interest in the site, and that an open-bidding process will allow it to “determine which organization is best suited to provide programming that will serve this community’s needs,” City attorney spokeswoman Gina Coburn said in an e-mail.

The club can submit a proposal, she said.

Board members hope they can convince the city not to open bidding to other groups. Davis said the new board’s attorneys would demand that Blevins turn over the keys to the club so the board could begin the club’s revival as a community resource at a time when city recreation centers face cuts.

A half-century ago, the neighborhood’s black community established the club at a time when Logan Heights had few local institutions to claim as its own. Since then, Logan Heights’ demographics have shifted considerably in the last 50 years. Once a predominantly black community, it is now roughly 80 percent Hispanic.

The Girls Club leadership remains almost entirely black, and some members of the newly formed board believe they’ll have to reach out to Latino residents if the Girls Club hopes to remain relevant to the community.

“This is our history,” Davis said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be tough. But we have to save it.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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