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Four city rec centers to close this month

Bernard C. Young

At the Crispus Attucks rec center Wednesday, young children were sprawled on mats watching "The Cat in the Hat" while dreamily waving their small feet in the air. Nearby, older children bounced around a basketball court or rehearsed their parts in a presentation for parents.

Their performance will mark much more than the end of summer camp. After more than 40 years of operation in West Baltimore's Madison Park neighborhood, Crispus Attucks is slated to close this month — one of at least four centers that will be shuttered under the city's long-planned overhaul of its recreation facilities.

The center's director, Arlene Foreman, says she worries that the children who attend Crispus Attucks will be unable to walk to the next-closest centers, which are about 15 minutes away by foot.

"How do you expect these young children to cross North Avenue?" said Foreman. "You're looking at drug-infested areas, bars, gangs. It's not safe. I don't think it's fair for them to just shut it down without something else to be in it's place."

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas warned for nearly two years that her plan to remake the city's aging network of rec centers would result in some closing. The mayor wants to create a smaller system of high-quality centers, featuring updated facilities and expanded programs. She has pledged to spend nearly $20 million on building or improving centers.

Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she wants children "to have choice and access to quality, not necessarily just quantity," in rec centers.

"Kids have to travel to get to the schools that they desire to go to, the libraries. And I'll be pleased when we have a system of recreation centers that people feel like are worth traveling for," she said. "Having old, rundown centers is not the way to get there."

Some city leaders strongly oppose the mayor's plan. "I firmly believe that it is a mistake to close recreation centers," said Council PresidentBernard C."Jack" Young. "Closing rec centers is harmful to our children and seniors, who depend on these centers for enriching activities."

The Recreation and Parks Department will continue to run programs at about 30 of the city's roughly 55 centers. Some others will be handed over to the school system or outside groups.

Four West Baltimore centers, including Crispus Attucks, are scheduled to close Aug. 11. The others are Parkview, near the south end of Druid Hill Park, Central Rosemont and Harlem Park.

It remains unclear whether other centers will be shut down. Rawlings-Blake announced in the spring that as many as 10 additional centers could close if the Family League, a quasi-public city agency, is unable to find nonprofits or businesses to run after-school programs in them.

Gwendolyn Chambers, a recreation and parks spokeswoman, said plans for the 10 had yet to be finalized. Kevin Keegan, executive director of the Family League, is on vacation and did not respond to requests for comment.

Rawlings-Blake has pledged to spend more than $19 million to build three new centers — in Clifton Park, Cherry Hill and Morrell Park — and to completely renovate an existing center in Patterson Park.

The city's 55 centers represent about half as many as were in operation 30 years ago, when Baltimore had 20 percent more residents. Under the mayor's plan, the Recreation and Parks Department will improve facilities and expand programming at 17 centers, in addition to the four new ones.

Eight other centers are to be handed over to private groups, which will manage daily operations and set hours, programs and fees in accordance with charter agreements. The city school system is slated to run "public education and community" programs at six centers which are attached to schools.

Employees at the centers that are closing are slated to be moved to positions at other centers.

Some parents whose children play at Crispus Attucks said yesterday they don't see how the updated rec centers will benefit their families. They can easily walk their children to Crispus Attucks or allow older children to walk alone, they said. Since the center is attached to Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, many children swing by after the school day ends and remain there until their parents finish work.

"It shouldn't close," said Keyarna Toliver, whose four sons attend programs at the center. "They're leaving the kids with no other option but to go to the streets."

"The other centers are too far away," said Toliver, who lives in an apartment complex across the street. "All the kids know each other here."

Chambers, the recreation and parks spokeswoman, said Crispus Attucks was targeted to be closed because attendance is low and the building is in poor condition. She pointed out that a nearby center, Robert C. Marshall, is larger and was recently renovated.

Foreman has managed the center for 41/2 years. She said the 33 children enrolled in the summer camp, ages 5 to 12, include 11 sets of brothers and sisters. Many families have spent decades attending the center, as older and younger children moved through sports programs.

As Foreman sent a child home with a grandparent, she lingered on the front steps, greeting the steady stream of teenagers and 20-somethings who passed by. The sidewalk in front of the rec center forms a sort of pedestrian highway connecting two subsidized apartment complexes.

Even the toughest-looking passersby greeted Foreman. Many of them played at the rec center as children, she said.

Inside, the 40-year-old center looks its age. Battered ceiling tiles and a light panel hang slightly askew. The window air conditioning units do little to allay the sticky heat. But Foreman says the center plays an important role for youngsters.

"Once they come in these doors, they know it's a safe haven," Foreman said.

At dinner time — the $175 fee parents pay for the seven-week camp includes three meals a day — boys rushed in from playing basketball, announcing to "Miss Arlene" that they had already washed their hands. Older children pulled mats out of the multi-purpose room as staffers set up tables for the meal.

The children lined up based on age and gender, and older children volunteered to take the little ones to wash their hands. Ray'Asia Perry, 8, carefully arranged chairs at each table, while Janiyah Banks, 11, handed each child a napkin. Staffers passed out cups of milk and plates of chicken, pita bread, pasta salad and canned pears.

Outside, Nathaniel Turner, 18, ducked under the center's eaves to escape a sudden summer downpour. Turner, who has participated in rec center programs for 11 years, along with his younger siblings, expressed disbelief that the center could close.

"It's crazy that they're taking this away," he said. "This is a good place."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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