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Residents of Baltimore fume over shuttered recreation centers

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The looting and street violence that roiled Baltimore this week shows why it is a big mistake to shut down the city’s recreation centers, many residents say, fearing the closures make it more likely that young people get in trouble with the law.

The rampage by mostly youthful crowds on Monday, sparked by the death of a 25-year-old black man who was injured while in police custody, was a painful reminder that young people badly needed after-school programs and recreation centers, they said.

“In many areas of the city there are no viable recreational activities for young people. That’s where we find ourselves at this point,” said Douglas Miles, a Baptist bishop and a former co-chairman of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, an advocacy group.

Since 2012, Baltimore has unloaded 14 of 55 centers in an overhaul of its recreation programs, a move forced in part by the city’s strained finances and long-term decline of its population. Four were closed, and 10 were transferred to private organizations or to the school system.

Across the street from the shuttered Parkview Recreation Center and just blocks from where Gray was arrested on April 12, residents said the closure of the facility gave neighborhood youth few choices when school was out.

Alice Nicholson, a 66-year-old grandmother of 15, said parents once had been able to buy $5 memberships at the center. Now options for neighborhood children were a more expensive YMCA, or using a playground where they were exposed to drug dealers, she said.

“When the rec center was open, it made a big difference. There was a place for kids to go,” she said.

The shrinking of the recreation center system came after a task force appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recommended a consolidation in 2011.

Most of the recreation centers were built in the 1960s and 1970s, when Baltimore’s population was well above its current 620,000.

Many housed little more than a gymnasium and a pool table and half were less than 5,000 square feet. The task force recommended replacement by fewer centers that were three to four times that size.

Since then, the city has pledged a campaign of renovating and building new centers. Two have been built, and a third is on the way.

Miles, who was on the recreation center task force, said that only 4,000 of Baltimore’s 81,000 students were in after-school programs.

Rawlings-Blake has clashed with City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young over financing for new recreation centers.

The mayor has wanted to sell off four downtown parking garages to raise $60 million to pay for new recreation centers. But Young has argued that the garages could generate revenue for years to come, and has called for building two large centers, one each on the city’s east and west sides.

Spokesmen for Rawlings-Blake and the Recreation and Parks Department had no immediate comment.

But there is little question where many Baltimore residents stand on the issue.

“They need to spend the money on jobs and places for people to go, not all these cops,” said Ashley Cain, 19 and unemployed, as she stood near a check-cashing business ransacked in Monday’s rioting. “We need more rec centers for people to go to.”

Additional reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker