Northwest neighborhood creates recreation center


The worn and battered building in the 4600 block of Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore triggers disturbing memories in some neighborhood youths.

Ronald Johnson, 11, remembers a shooting in front of the building a month ago. Kevin McNeil, 10, recalls being chased into an alley behind the aging structure by a group of boys he thought would "smoke," or shoot, him because he wouldn't sell drugs.

For Cookie Sherman, 13, the sight of shattered glass on the sidewalk outside the building reminds her of the bottle fight between two men she saw last week when walking home from school. "I don't even want to walk by there now," she said. "I changed the way I go home."

Without government help, some dozen volunteers who live in the Towanda-Grantley community are changing the building's -- and hopefully the community's -- image. For the last six weeks, they've been converting the vacant two-story brick building at the corner of Reisterstown Road and Waldorf Avenue for use as a recreation and multi-purpose center to be called the Phoenix Resource Center. It is expected to open in mid-November.

The effort is spearheaded by Michael Johnson, 37, a longtime neighborhood activist whose family owns a dry cleaning shop in the area.

"Right now, the kids don't have anywhere to go, and the residents don't have anyplace to meet," Mr. Johnson said. "When this is finished, they will."

"It's about what we're going to do about community empowerment," Mr. Johnson said of the project. "I hope to make this the anchor of the community where people can come here to get food when they're hungry and clothing when they need clothes."

The center hopes to offer drug and alcohol abuse programs, provide GED classes for those without high school diplomas and house a law center where residents can get free legal advice. Mr. Johnson said specialists in those areas have committed to volunteering at the center.

He doesn't know how much money it will take to run the center for a year; he's currently putting together a plan.

Mr. Johnson will seek donations and stage fund-raising events for operating funds.

Money for supplies to renovate the building comes out of the pockets of the volunteers. Some materials are donated by area businesses.

"Sometimes we're really begging for supplies," said Mr. Johnson. "I've used up most of my own money, but we still keep on trying. Instead of going to businesses and asking for money, we ask for building materials."

Volunteers are filling in gaping holes in the walls of the storefront building, shoring up and finishing creaking floors and painting.

Mr. Johnson said the structure is "99 percent" better than it was a month ago.

The volunteers live near the building and are either unemployed or retired. Many of the younger ones recall growing up in the often cruel neighborhood.

Toney Noble, 24, a carpenter, said that because of the lack of recreational facilities in the area, he was "always in trouble."

"Right now, the only thing that kids can do is throw bottles at each other and play basketball with crates and that's not right," Mr. Noble said. "When I was coming up, I didn't have any role models to look up to and neither do they. They need a stable and secure place to go."

Mr. Noble said he puts in a full day's work on the project daily, and the only thing he has to show for it are scarred and calloused hands. But he has hope that the center will make things better for neighborhood youths.

"This is about the future and that's important to all of us," Mr. Noble said. "It's a hurting feeling to know that these kids are doing some of the same things I did."

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