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Sizzlin’ Summer

Neighborhood Watchers

Baltimore’s rec centers remain vital community hubs as they struggle to stay afloat

Photo: Tim Hill, License: N/A, Created: 2002:03:23 04:54:43

Tim Hill

A scene from West Baltimore’s James McHenry Recreation Center

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The James McHenry Recreation Center is bustling on a cool Friday evening. A handful of preteen boys play air hockey and “all ball” on a pool table, knocking in all the balls without bothering to cue up or even take turns. Down a flight of stairs, the gymnasium reverberates. A dozen or so boys swarm around the baskets, and one pint-size boy tries to keep the ball away from his much older brothers and friends—and he has some moves too.

Meanwhile, three men lift dumbbells in the weight room in the back, joking around. The walls are plastered with magazine cutouts of hard bodies, and the room is lined with training equipment of all vintages and styles—some bought, many donated.

Everyone knows everyone, greeting each other with a warm hello, a hug, or a wave. The center is alive with a relieved after-school energy to match the evening before a weekend. And this isn’t even a busy day.

“Oh, you need to be here on a Tuesday or Wednesday,” says LaVerne Foster, the center’s director. “That’s when this place is really busy.” Around 150 participants come and go on a typical weekday. She lists off activities—basketball, tutoring, board games, aerobics, line dancing—and invites us back to take it all in.

McHenry Recreation Center, which adjoins McHenry Elementary, is a second home, a beehive, a nerve center for a chunk of neighborhood just west of Hollins Market. It’s one of the city’s 55 recreation centers, one of a network of buildings that provide after-school assistance and activities for their neighborhoods’ children and adults.

And like other city centers, McHenry expands programming during the summer months, offering more sports, field trips, and day camps. But this summer is different—after years of threatening to shut down many of the rec centers due to budget constraints, the city seems to be on the verge of doing it, and is looking to turn over management of up to half of its centers to private groups. There is a sense that something needs to be done—centers have operated on shoestring budgets and in deteriorating buildings for years—but no one is sure how things will shake out.

Yet the mood this evening at McHenry is buoyant. The building begins to empty of young voices—headed home to parents, grandparents, or guardians—and adults begin to arrive for a line-dancing class. The weight room buzzes with debate of Joe Flacco’s maturation, and how close to .500 the Orioles might finish this year.

Outside the center’s walls, the neighborhood isn’t so convivial or warm: Hardened young men stand watch on a corner, a bedraggled couple slowly paces the sidewalk down the street. The ubiquitous hornet’s drone of a dirt bike echoes from nearby Lombard Street.

“The Recreation Center is like a safe haven,” Foster says. “It’s like you can come into a drug-infested community—which most of our centers are in now—and the traffic and that kind of behavior goes on all around the center, and it doesn’t come in the center. We’re attached to a school and they have horrible, horrible discipline problems in that school. We don’t have them here.”

She says Baltimore City’s recreation centers are a place where kids—many of them “one step away” from the penal system, she adds—can go to be safe and benefit from adult supervision and guidance. “Because they want to come in here,” she says, “they’ve been allowed to change their behavior.”

McHenry’s two full-time staff members, two part-time staff members, and 12 volunteers tilt against the odds, and the situation is similar in other centers. The system, part of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, serves nearly 2,000 children in after-school programs and more than 2,500 children in summer programs. But the centers have fewer than 100 full-time staffers, according to Jacqueline Williams, Recreation and Parks’ division chief of programming and training. She explains that all 55 current centers have a full-time staff member, and most have a full-time assistant—usually a recreation leader—but sometimes that position is part time. Some of the bigger centers have additional part-time staff, and most benefit from volunteers.

“The truth of the matter is we don’t have enough staff to efficiently run 55, or 52, or even 50 centers,” Williams says.

Years of dwindling budgets, staff, and resources; deterioration of buildings; and turnover in top Recreation and Parks positions has led to low morale among directors.

“It seems that there’s been a continuous feeling of helplessness,” Bill Tyler, the city’s bureau chief of recreation, acknowledges. A relatively new hire—he came to city government in July 2010, about three months after Greg Bayor, Recreation and Parks’ new director—Tyler exemplifies a shift in the recreation center system, a fresh attitude Foster said she and many of her colleagues are beginning to notice.

“I say to my staff, and I say to people who haven’t met [Tyler] in the department,” Foster says, “because there’s still that overhanging feeling of gloom and doom, I tell them we have the best managerial staff we’ve had in a long time.”

“We’re trying to bring an attitude of ‘We can do it,’” Tyler says. “The same old way doesn’t work sometimes.”

On paper, it’s not hard to get depressed: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s 2011 budget allots $5.6 million for the city’s recreation centers, down 33 percent from 2010. The budget calls for closing or turning over to private groups 26 centers and the elimination of 84 full-time positions.

Tyler says he believes the Mayor’s Task Force on Recreation Centers, formed in July 2010, has found a solution to keeping most if not all of the centers open. A group of community leaders, clergy, experts, and Recreation and Parks staff visited county recreation centers, then visited city centers, saw the contrast, and studied how centers operated in other cities.

The plan, which is still being drafted, contains report cards for each of the city’s recreation centers, an overall assessment of the system’s service gaps, and a recommendation for an audit by the city’s comptroller. A request for proposals is also being drawn up, which calls for private groups to put forth ideas on managing centers.

“[The task force] concluded that to keep recreation centers accessible, open, and well staffed, they’d need alternate organizations to manage some centers, taking the financial burden off the city,” he says.

Private management of city recreation centers isn’t a new concept. The Living Classrooms Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club currently operate two of the city’s 55 centers. The city still oversees operations and helps direct their programming; city officials say expanded public-private cooperation would work the same way.

“I think this bold step will allow community partners to come in and get the program moving in the right direction,” says Ashley Stewart, one of the task force members. “It’s smart, it’s innovative. It’s not without its challenges, but [the centers are] trying to do the best they can with the resources they have.”

Stewart is senior director of community initiatives at the National Summer Learning Association, a Baltimore-based summer-education advocacy group. The NSLA evolved from TeachBaltimore, a grassroots organization that kept many Baltimore City schoolchildren learning through the summer by pairing them with Johns Hopkins University undergrad tutors.

He believes a reinvigorated recreation center system would greatly help city schoolchildren with summer learning—or really, what amounts to summer forgetting—as well as related problems such as obesity and delinquency. Besides bringing in fresh ideas from private organizations, Stewart sees the plan as a means for more cooperation between local institutions, such as the school board and the city.

“It’s a tough thing to work out at all levels, and it takes a long time,” Stewart says. “But I have a sneaking suspicion that if Mayor Rawlings-Blake sat down with schools Superintendent [Andrés] Alonso and Recreation and Parks Director Bayor, it would happen.”

The centers have long been at the forefront of budget battles. The city operated more than 100 when Foster started working in the system in 1969, she says, and over the years the number has dwindled. Previous administrations closed waves of centers, forced by the long-declining arc of city revenue and population. More public-private cooperation, many agree, is the way out of the dilemma.

But Vicki Harding, a Hollins resident, McHenry volunteer, and community activist who cracked open the test-scores scandal at George Washington Elementary last year with a letter-writing campaign to city officials, is wary.

“I’m not a fan of turning over management to private agencies. You’re taking the power out of the [hands of the] public,” she says. “I don’t like that.”

Harding talks about the strong community bonds formed at city recreation centers, where many adults find like-minded souls and a spiritual, physical, or emotional outlet, whether it’s with the weightlifting, dancing, and aerobics classes at McHenry, or programs in other neighborhoods’ centers that cater to a community’s particular interests, such as sports, gardening, cooking, or continuing education. At some centers the adult participants often end up tutoring and helping the centers’ children.

“There’s a lot of love in this recreation center,” Harding says.

“Our recreation center system is like no other in the country,” Foster says. “We cater basically to the individual community. Everybody can do something different, based on what that community wants.”

Foster believes some centers may lose identity in a new system: “It looks to be standardized,” she says.

She acknowledges the necessity of change, however, and is encouraged by the shift that seems to be afoot.

“You just want to give it a chance,” Foster says. “You gotta give it a chance, you know? There’s always hope.”

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