Skateboard park a sign of neighborhood on a roll

Arundel residents reclaim neglected site

February 03, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

There were ollies and nollies out there on the fresh asphalt. There were pop-shove-its and nose manuals, kick flips and heel flips in the chilling breeze.

And if you have no idea what any of those skateboard terms mean, then you are like most of the grownups who watched through the chain-link fence yesterday as kids swarmed over Anne Arundel County's first skateboard park. The adults couldn't speak the lingo and didn't know the moves.

But the opening yesterday of the little Harundale park was grand for them, too. It symbolized not only the resuscitation of a long-neglected park where some of the older folks played Little League ball nearly 40 years ago, it stood for the power of a few slightly fanatical people to make a place better.

"Finally, there's something to do," said LaRae Robinson, 14, a lanky boy who moved to the area from Las Vegas last year and who, like other skateboarders, is tired of being chased off the walkways of Glen Burnie High School. "I like everything about it."

"At last," said Janet Winter, a mother of six and a computer teacher at the high school, who for years has watched skateboard tricks chip away at her concrete front step. "The older kids'll fuss about the safety equipment. But they'll come."

"I had doubts until Michael Jennings got involved," said Jerry Guenter, 87, who moved to the subdivision of modest one-story houses off Ritchie Highway as it was being built after World War II, saw it thrive and has watched it drift downhill. "He's rejuvenated the community. I don't know anyone like him."

The stubborn energy it takes to turn a neighborhood around was on display yesterday as Jennings, the crusading president of the Harundale-Oakwood Park Civic Association, rushed about giving orders, fixing a recalcitrant electric generator, laying down the law about helmets and knee pads (required) - all the time waving a walkie-talkie like a conductor's baton.

No, a parent could not sign the legal waiver form for somebody else's kid. ("Our lawyer says no way.") Yes, perhaps there will be a season pass with a discount on admission, now $4 for members, $6 for others. ("Hey, it's just our first day.")

Jennings, 42, operates a carpet-and-tile business with his wife, Dee, from their home a few blocks away; on the side, he's the civic association's volunteer leader.

Or maybe it's the other way around.

The story begins in 1997, when the Jennings and their three children moved from Dundee, a few miles away. Michael Jennings had never held office or led campaigns. But he didn't like what he saw on evening strolls.

"The neighborhood," Jennings says, "was falling apart."

That's an exaggeration, some residents say, but they know what he means. Some houses looked their age, and more. Trash was scattered about. Teens with nothing to do found things to do - vandalism and, at times, burglary.

Frustrated, Michael Jennings showed up at a civic association meeting. "I thought, `There are 1,136 houses in this community. How can there only be eight people here?'" In a rash moment, he suggested it might be time for someone else to take over.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Jennings says.

He started by deciding to collect the required annual "maintenance fees," averaging $25 a house, that many residents didn't pay. Not everybody was wild about this crackdown. In fact, some neighbors had no use for Jennings' gung-ho devotion to improvement.

Some confronted him in the street. Some children shouted epithets when he passed. Once, an outraged opponent in a pickup truck nearly ran him down; Jennings took out a restraining order against the man.

Undaunted, Jennings turned a small, neglected park into a basketball court. He had more than 100 abandoned cars removed. He pestered absentee owners about rundown rental properties.

He wasn't alone for long. Marc Rubin, 38, a wireless technician for WorldCom, was so inspired by what he saw in the association newsletter that he paid five years' of back fees and threw himself into the battle. Other folks got involved, including Andrew Christian, 64, who became the association's vice president.

Then they turned to the park off Guildford Road. In the 1950s and '60s, it had buzzed with Little League action. But two decades ago, youth sports migrated to other fields and weeds took over the park's 33 acres. In recent years, Jennings says, the leading youth activities there included "drinking, lighting tires on fire and smashing bottles."

Jennings rallied local politicians. County Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., worried about kids skateboarding in the street, proposed the skateboard park. Of the more than $100,000 in fees Jennings had collected in his two-year tenure, about half went into grading, asphalt, fencing, lighting, a storage shed and the skateboard ramps.

Much of the outright hostility has dissipated. But when he sent letters to all 1,1,36 houses, requesting help in building the fence, three people showed up.

Nevertheless, Jennings and his core of allies are not deterred. He and Rubin talk of picnic tables, barbecue grills, a nature walk.

"I'm a little numb right now," Jennings said yesterday, as word of the opening spread and kids streamed down the road to the park. "I haven't slept much. But last night, when I stood back and looked at this park under the lights, I felt pretty good."

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