Near a library now vacant, a sports complex will rise

September 30, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THEIR WISDOM and sensitivity, the Great Thinkers at City Hall last week voted to spend $250,000 to build a family sports complex on Park Heights Avenue. This is news to cheer. The sports complex will be located precisely three blocks from the old Pimlico branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. This is news to drive a city out of its mind.

That library branch was officially shut down just weeks ago. The city said it did not have the $290,000 budgeted to keep it open. Simple math shows a difference of $40,000 between funding the old library and funding the opening of the new sports center. But computing what's important to a community's health cannot be done with simple arithmetic.

In the midst of lower Park Heights Avenue's famous blight -- the vacant, boarded-up houses from Belvedere Avenue to Park Circle are among the city's most poignant eyesores -- the new family sports complex will include basketball and tennis courts, tot lots, game tables and a 30-tee miniature golf course.

All of these are fine endeavors. There is nothing like a bracing game of miniature golf on the way home to a neighborhood with crack dealers on street corners, and nothing like a sporty round of pingpong before going home past rotting houses where there used to be living human beings.

The Pimlico library branch was one of five Pratt branches closed this month because of the city's continuing budget crisis. During the past five years, more than $5 million has been cut from the Pratt budget. No matter that this was called the City That Reads. It is also a city trying to balance a shrinking population, and a shrinking tax base, with ever-rising municipal costs.

In such an equation, all good intentions aside, some things have to die -- but others are born.

Last week, the city's Board of Estimates approved spending the $250,000 sports complex money as matching funds for state dollars that were OK'd last year. Never mind ballgames -- this is billed as a project to aid residents in reinforcing values of family and community.

I do not wish to minimize those values. Sports do build a sense of community. They do give young people an opportunity to define themselves, to learn discipline and to channel untapped energy into healthy activities.

But three blocks away, they've closed a library that was part of the community, that gave young people a chance to define themselves, to learn discipline and channel untapped energy into healthy activities. In particular, the energy of the human brain, leading to many grand possibilities throughout life.

That Park Heights community needs such a facility.

"Absolutely," City Council President Sheila Dixon said on Friday, two days after she and every other member of the five-person Board of Estimates OK'd the sports center funding. "No one wants to close a library. Nobody wanted to see that happen.

"And this is a part of town," she said, "that's been neglected, totally neglected, for a long time. It needs a major, major plan to revitalize it."

But, Dixon said, it's not fair to compare the library with the sports complex -- even if they are three blocks away. Community organizers have spent long hours working hard to plan the sports center. The great percentage of the overall cost is being handled by the state. The community needs such a place to fill after-school hours.

As for the library, to minimize the impact of the closing, Dixon said, "We're working with schools and businesses in the area to bring back a presence of at least some library resources."

Even though, she acknowledged, two neighborhood elementary schools are about to be closed and a third merged with another school. Why are the schools closing? Because population's dropping along the lower Park Heights neighborhoods. It's an area in so much disrepair that lots of people are hungry to leave it.

Here's something else that Dixon says hasn't been pointed out: Not enough people were using the Pimlico library -- and that helped figure in its closing.

That gets us to another problem: It's a community where too many kids are struggling in schools -- the standardized testing numbers bear this out -- and there are too many homes where kids aren't exposed to books and magazines and newspapers.

Which makes libraries so much more important.

And makes the contrast so stark: A library branch that was a community bulwark for 40 years is shut down for lack of money; and, just three blocks away, similar money is approved for a sports center to keep kids' bodies occupied while their minds are regarded as afterthoughts.

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