Fighting for our rec centers
reports on the fight grassroots community activists are waging to save recreation centers slated for possible closure in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE ACTIVISTS are fighting to keep the doors to their community centers open--despite the city's drive to shutter them.
On August 10, 2012, four inner-city Baltimore recreation centers were closed permanently. Ten more are under threat of closure if the Family League, a "quasi-governmental nonprofit organization," can't come up with nonprofit groups or businesses to run after-school programs in them, according to Mayor Stephanie Rawlins-Blake's plan to reduce the number of city rec renters in favor of fewer, "improved" centers, which would result in an overall budget cut to Parks and Recreation.
Predictably, poor and mostly Black neighborhoods, particularly on the West side of the city, are most likely to lose their rec centers.
When the closures were first announced in October, 100 people against the closure of the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center attended a meeting of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. Only three people came to advocate for a dog park in gentrified Canton, but the dog park was approved while Crispus Attucks was slated for final closure.
On the day of the closures, local activists held small rallies at Crispus Attucks and Harlem Park--another closing center where the community also lost a fire station. But at the Mary E. Rodman Recreation Center (one of the centers slated for possible closure), there was an outpouring of community support.
Over 100 community residents rallied around the rec center, many carrying signs with an image of Mayor Rawlins-Blake's face and the words "Wanted for the Murder of Our Recreation Centers" printed on them.
The event was done in New Orleans funeral-march style, with a rousing preacher praying for the "resurrection" of the recreation centers and a band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as young people carried a symbolic casket bearing the names of the rec centers they were losing.
People were angry at the mayor for claiming the city didn't have the money to run these essential community services, while at the same time spending millions on the construction of a new youth jail, hosting the Grand Prix car racing event downtown subsidized with public money, and giving out enormous tax breaks to developers.
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RENEE MCCRAY, a middle-aged Black woman and member of the Allendale Neighborhood Association, was instrumental in organizing her community around saving Mary E. Rodman rec center and expanding the message to include all of the rec centers.
McCray had never considered herself an activist until the rec centers came under attack. "I was a person who sat back--until it came to my backyard," she said. "If it wasn't for the rec center, I wouldn't be active the way I am now."
When she first heard about the closures, she proposed a letter-writing campaign. In addition to getting 700 form letters signed, she also helped deliver 400 more with stamped envelopes to her neighbors' doors, which people mailed in. She put the letter on a web site, SaveOurRecs.com, along with resources for contacting their district council members and the mayor.
After that, when she saw the center was still on target to close, she knew she had to have a rally. The first rally was held on June 29, one of the hottest days of the summer, and drew 150 people from the community after McCray delivered flyers door to door around the community.
Explaining why she was drawn into such a flurry of activity, McCray explained, "Mary E. Rodman was pretty much a part of our family. And the state continues to take resources away from our community."
When asked what she hoped to accomplish with the August 10 "funeral march," McCray said:
I wanted to educate people. Let them know that they have a voice, and that their voices need to be heard. They need to know that they are the ones with all the power, and the people in public office are there to serve you. I was hoping to get people more engaged in the political process, because a lot of decisions are being made that are not beneficial to our community. These representatives we put in office aren't representing us.
Since the funeral march, McCray says that she has heard that activists at another rec center want to start to fight back and do what those at the Mary E. Rodman rec center have been doing.
Right now, the community is being told that the Mary E. Rodman center will stay open until October, or until further notice, which McCray considers a temporary victory. She says that gives activists a little bit of a reprieve, but the fight must continue, and she hopes that other communities will also step up for their own rec centers.
The Allendale community has shown that it is possible to take a stand against austerity--all it takes is for regular people like Renee McCray to start to get organized.