The new fine arts and recreation center at South Baltimore's Westport Homes is billed as a refuge from the drug chaos spilling into the city's streets, and it is. It gives children a place to learn dance, drama and music -- instruction which is in short supply in city schools. And the lessons are targeted to show youngsters how to live a drug-free life.
It is a worthy goal, but there is much more to the notion of having a friendly place to go after school, on weekends and in the summer. Community centers have introduced generations of young people to adults with whom they could talk over problems, discuss education and life goals and share in the acculturation process that produces good citizens. Typically, these centers operated under a city's recreation department -- Baltimore's did, until it started running out of money. But youth clubs, YMCAs and church-run centers also played a major role for most of this century. Some still do.
It is especially important that the work begun at Westport Homes be expanded. The Schmoke administration's recognition of this and its pursuit of a $256,000 federal Housing and Urban Development grant to open this center and others at Lafayette Courts, Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace are commendable.
Things cannot stop there, though. The recreation-and-learning centers won't be of much help if they remain simply islands of peace amid the deep trouble brewing daily in the streets. Drug dealers and the thugs with whom they travel have taken over public playgrounds, running children away with their deadly commerce, and some will undoubtedly try to ply their trade in the centers.
The community outside the housing projects must pitch in as well to see that the centers remain viable. Planners in the Housing Authority have attempted to ensure parental involvement in setting up center activities, but they will need help from educators, business leaders and private volunteers to make these centers really work to support the hopes expressed by the young people they attract. Saving Baltimore's next generation from the horrors of drugs and despair is everybody's job.