The Shake and Bake Family Fun Center sits at the end of a block of vacant houses. Trash is strewn in the street. The sidewalks are spotted with broken glass.
But inside, kids are smiling and laughing. The latest Nicki Minaj track is pumping on the sound system and some of the older teens are showing off their tricks, skating backward fast, carefree on a winter night.
"To kids around this area, this is the place to have fun," says 10th-grader Lornae Hughes-Pope, eating pizza with her sister. "It has less problems than other places. There are less arguments, less fights. Everyone who comes here is treated like family."
This is the way ex-Baltimore Colt Glenn "Shake and Bake" Doughty envisioned the huge recreation center that bears his nickname. Three decades after he founded the center with 40 bowling alleys and a disco roller skating rink in West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood, the operation has overcome deep financial troubles to serve thousands of children and adults.
Doughty, a wide receiver who played eight seasons with the Colts from 1972 to 1979, estimates that more than 1 million people have used the facility since he founded it in 1983.
"God gave me the vision to put a facility that was not like any other in the country right in the heart of the inner city," says Doughty, now 63 and living in St. Louis. "As players, we wanted to bring a Super Bowl trophy to Baltimore, but we fell a little short. Shake and Bake is my gift to the citizens of Baltimore."
Last year, more than 117,000 people passed through the center's doors at 1601 Pennsylvania Ave., participating in bowling, skating, poetry slams and Zumba, among other activities.
Now owned by the city and operated by a private vendor, Anthony Williams Sr.'s Kingdom Managed Inc., recent events at Shake and Bake fed more than 600 people on Thanksgiving and provided Christmas presents for 75 families.
"The toy drive was phenomenal," says Williams, who sponsored the holiday collections.
Williams, 48, is one of three full-time employees. The center also employs nearly 20 high-schoolers and posts a modest profit, according to Williams. No taxpayer dollars are used.
That's a far cry from the financial problems of the past.
Doughty opened the center as a private enterprise but sold it to the city in 1985 after falling behind on payments on a $4 million loan from city officials. The city removed Doughty's nickname from the center's title, officially calling it the Baltimore Neighborhood Recreation Facility. But locals still called it Shake and Bake, and the old name was later restored.
The city, despite early success in turning the center around financially, eventually faced difficulties, too. From 1995 to 1998, the center lost $1.6 million.
Amid those troubles, city officials moved to privatize the center in 1999, retaining ownership but giving operating powers to Baltimore City Skating, an affiliate of Ohio-based United Skates of America. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's transition team in 2010 recommended seeking greater efficiencies at the site, and in 2011 the Board of Estimates awarded a five-year operating contract to Williams' firm.
Williams had spent much of his adult life working at the center. He began as a ticket-taker in 1985, shortly before the city assumed ownership. He worked his way up to become the site's head mechanic and eventually manager.
"My passion was always here," he said.
Prices to skate range from $1 on Wednesdays to $10 on Fridays, when the center provides all-you-can-eat pizza. Williams also rents the center to private parties, which pay between $99 and $350. The center has hosted events that include amateur boxing matches and a concert by rapper Gucci Mane in 2013.
Fliers for some private parties depicted a club atmosphere that concerned city officials, who want to preserve the center's family-friendly reputation. All special events now must be approved by city recreation and parks officials under an amendment to the contract approved by the Board of Estimates in September.
Rashaan Brave, who oversees special facilities for the recreation department, said officials recognize how important it is for the center to be a success.
"We definitely want to use Shake and Bake as a vehicle to push more programming targeting teens," Brave says.
State Del. Keith Haynes, who represents the area, says the center is having a "tremendous positive impact for the community."
"It has had a history of financial ups and downs, but that's with any community-based business or program. I'm glad to see it's still standing and still thriving after 30 years," Haynes said. "It's one of the few if not the only recreation outlet of its kind that serves Upton and surrounding communities."
The Upton neighborhood has more children than most Baltimore neighborhoods, and nearly half of them live in poverty. Its juvenile arrest rate is more than double the city's average. The block where Shake and Bake sits sometimes shows up in police reports. Over a 12-month period stretching from mid-2013 into last year, there were 41 calls for police service to the block, including reports of drug use, theft, assault and a stolen vehicle.
Williams says sometimes he or security staff will walk teens to a nearby Metro stop to make sure they're safe.
"We escort them to the subway station, which is only a block up the street," he said. "It gives them a sense of security."
Doughty recalls the massive economic development effort in downtown Baltimore during the 1970s and 1980s that inspired him to focus on a poorer part of the city.
"There was so much development going on in the Inner Harbor, and the neighborhoods were being neglected," Doughty says.
He has spoken with Williams on the phone about the center. "The sound system that we put in is still jamming."
Williams, says Doughty, is "doing a great job of managing and implementing my vision. That baby is going to be there for as long as folks are breathing."