WE RARELY WENT to the public recreation center near the projects where I lived during my childhood. Ball games and other sports occurred in the yards and streets that surrounded our houses. The rec center had a little park with a slide, swings, merry-go-round and climbing bars. But we had similar playground stuff at school, so no one made a special trip to the rec center just for that.
It was more fun to play on the dirt hills of a construction site where new apartments were being built. We liked to play army and throw dirt-clod grenades that broke into fragments when they hit somebody. That is, until someone got the bright idea to throw clay missiles with a rock inside.
As we got older some of us went to the rec center to play basketball. But the crowd that hung out there got more menacing as the years went by. Gambling and fights were as common as hustlers pushing ''reds'' and marijuana. Winos were likely to say or do anything. I didn't need that.
Thirty years later, many inner-city children have no choice but to depend on the nearest rec center. Not just to play, but also to do homework, to learn a craft or to find a place where they can stay out of harm's way until an adult gets home. Because rec centers have become so important for so many children and the elderly, any talk about reducing their number or cutting their funding can quickly become very emotional. We're at that point in Baltimore, again.
Something's got to give
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been unable to stanch the continuous drain in revenue that comes with the city's loss of population and jobs, so he must cut costs. Reluctant to trim general-fund spending on police, fire or education -- which need more money -- Mr. Schmoke has his carving knife positioned over what's left.
What's left are the social, civic, arts and cultural entities that depend on the city. He wants to cut their funding in half, saving $1.2 million. What's left is the city's cable Channel 44. He wants to cut it out, saving $540,000. What's left is the Department of Recreation and Parks, whose budget the mayor proposes slicing by $5.4 million.
By recommending a cut of only $112,000 in the Enoch Pratt Free Library budget, Mr. Schmoke may have avoided rebellion this year by library patrons who fear losing their favorite branch. It appears Pratt officials have bought the time they wanted to complete a master plan detailing how the branch system can be, shall we say, streamlined and modernized.
That's not the case with Recreation and Parks. The mayor's budget demands that the agency decide now how it can get by with less, unless the City Council passes a new tax measure. Mr. Schmoke says his budget doesn't necessarily threaten rec centers because the Police Athletic League, several community groups and even the Salvation Army have expressed interest in taking over more of them.
Closing and consolidating some of the city's 58 rec centers, however, should be considered. The mayor's Task Force on Parks and Recreation noted that while unaudited reports from 31 centers contended 4,370 children use their facilities daily, unannounced spot checks revealed that only 483 kids were actually there each day.
Some rec centers not attracting patrons may simply need new leadership. Others may not be needed at all. Close them and use their funds at the centers that are needed. Many are unable to afford roof repairs or buy equipment.
Budget cuts may force Recreation and Parks director Marlyn J. Perritt to make some overdue decisions about rec centers. That's unfortunate, but it's not bad.
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/17/97