City forum conveys warning on risk of closing rec centers

April 12, 2009|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The children spoke first, an appropriate gesture considering they have the most to lose.

Dominique Ritch, 14, strode to the microphone at midcourt in the gym of the Rosemont Police Athletic League Center and faced the director of Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks.

His first words would be repeated in some form or another throughout the evening by children, teens and adults. "I want to know why you all are closing our rec center," the Calverton Middle School seventh-grader asked. "This is where we have our fun at."

His next words should serve as a warning as a city strapped for cash proposes closing two of these centers, including this one at Rosemont, and removing cops from others and turning the sites over to the recreation department, ending the long-successful and much-copied Police Athletic League program. "I do bad things on the outside, but when I come in here I do good," Dominique said.

The audience applauded, rec director Wanda S. Durden thanked him, and other speakers took their turn at Thursday's forum, one of 18 scheduled, one at each of the PAL centers, through next month.

I took Dominique aside. I wanted to know what he meant by good things and bad things from the perspective of a young teen growing up in one of the city's most depressed and dangerous neighborhoods.

By good, he meant that when involved with PAL his grades went up and he stayed off the streets. By bad, he told me, as casually as he would describe a pickup game of basketball, "I used to steal cars."

I wish our rec director had pressed this young man and heard the rest of his story, but the rules were designed to avoid give-and-take. Residents spoke, and Durden answered their questions at the end. Speeches followed by more speeches, but no real conversation.

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch promised to help the community keep the center open, even without police, and the head of the Leon Day Foundation said his group, which runs a park in West Baltimore and a basketball league with 400 players, would look into taking the center over when the police leave July 1.

That might save this rec center, but it won't stop others from losing their officers and the Police Department from giving the buildings and the programs to Recreation and Parks. It's the police part of the equation that residents like.

Lt. Col. Glenn D. Williams told angry parents and children that under the new plan officers would stop in and be involved in every one of the city's more than 50 rec centers, not just the 18 PALs. "It is a surprise to me that a post officer does not know the names of every child in his district," Williams said. "He should know who they are, and we will make sure he does know who they are."

Durden told the group that the change is driven by budget constraints, but she also described it as an opportunity to consolidate rec centers under one roof. "We hope that the decisions we have made will be best for the city," Durden said. "We had some very tough end-of-year fiscal numbers."

Karen Standfield, who spent 27 years as a city police officer and opened the Rosemont PAL in 1994, drove 90 miles from Pennsylvania to testify. "You have to have law enforcement officers in here," the retired officer said. "You need them. I don't think Rec and Parks can do the job."

Rick Mosley was a dispatcher for the now-defunct housing authority police in 1989, when Rosemont was declared the worst and most dangerous neighborhood in the city. He credited PAL with improving the area. "We have had kids killed, yes," he said. "We've had kids go to jail, yes. But we have saved so many."

He listed the success stories: "My son Sean Mosley, University of Maryland, came out of this center. A Frostburg University student came out of this center. A Harvard graduate, now a sheriff's deputy in California, came out of this center. Officer Womack, a police officer in Baltimore County, came out of this center. ... All the positive things that came out of here, and you want to shut it down?"

I like how the father emphasized his son the college student and not his son the freshman basketball player. Sean Mosley is a starting guard for the Terrapins. The proud father told me that Sean played his first pickup games with cops on the very court they were using for the hearing.

The hearing ended after nightfall, and outside the center kids tossed a football under the blue glow from three police cameras and a portable police floodlight set up because the street lights are too dim to be of any use. If the city has its way, the doors will close July 1, the cops will be gone, the light turned off. Sean will be preparing for his sophomore year in college, and the question we all need to ask is: What will happen to Dominique?

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