Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Albert Wiley kept hearing the complaints on the evening news: Responding to ongoing crime involving city youth, Baltimore residents were telling the TV cameras that teens need a place to keep busy, engaged and productive, away from crime.

Wiley, president of the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council, wanted to be part of the solution. And it dawned on him: “There’s a recreation center right in our neighborhood that’s closed.” He meant the Harlem Park Rec Center, one of more than 20 that were shut down by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration in 2011 and 2012.

It took some major financial help from a private partner, the University of Maryland Medical Center, but today Wiley stood alongside city officials inside that same building to celebrate its reopening.

“It’s the partnerships that have come to make a difference in this community,” Wiley told a crowd. “This recreation center is a true dream to us.”

Seven years after it was shut down, the Harlem Park Recreation Center now sports a resurfaced basketball court, a renovated multi-purpose room and offices, new office and sports equipment, a newly accessible entryway and upgraded floors, lighting and paint. UMMC, located about a mile and a half from the center at 700 N. Calhoun St., helped raise $200,000 for the renovations.

The center will have pop-up programs in Harlem Park starting tomorrow, and will be up and running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and from 5 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Youth and adult programs, sports leagues, after-school classes and more will be offered once the school year begins in September.

Once it’s fully operational, staff from the downtown hospital will also help run health and wellness programming there in the fall when the center is fully operational, Department of Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Whitney Clemmons Brown said.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stood with Wiley and others for the big unveiling today. Young said he’s always “fought against closing rec centers”–he noted he pushed back against Rawlings-Blake’s move to shutter this one and others in 2012–“because if it wasn’t for rec centers, I wouldn’t be here today.”

“Now as mayor, I’m extremely excited to be able to return this jewel to the residents for their enjoyment.”

All Baltimore rec centers will be open Monday through Saturday after Labor Day weekend. This year marks the first time in decades that all or most city of them are open on Saturdays, thanks to a $2.6 million investment included in this year’s budget.

Young and others are hoping that earmarking funds for that purpose will mark a turning point. The total number of rec centers peaked at 130 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but fell to just a fraction of that–around 40–by the mid 2010s as funding to operate them dropped.

Four of the ones that closed in 2012 were located in West Baltimore, including Harlem Park, Parkview, Crispus Attucks and Central Rosemont. Rawlings-Blake said at the time that the goal was for kids “to have choice and access to quality, not necessarily just quantity” with facilities.

“Kids have to travel to get to the schools that they desire to go to, the libraries,” she told The Sun. “And I’ll be pleased when we have a system of recreation centers that people feel like are worth traveling for. Having old, rundown centers is not the way to get there.”

A dearth of rec centers is often referenced in reports and conversations around the Baltimore Uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in spring of 2015. Outgoing City Councilman Bill Henry was among those who blamed drastic cuts in funding over time for the centers, amid ramped-up financing of policing, as a root cause of the violence that boiled over after Gray’s death. At a council hearing after the unrest, he said the city “purposely disinvested” in youth and instead invested “in catching and caging them.”

Rawlings-Blake announced a plan to add more centers that same summer. New facilities were built in Lake Clifton in 2013 and Morrell Park in 2014, and others were renovated, such as Park Heights’ CC Jackson Rec Center in 2016 and, most recently, Cherry Hill’s Patapsco Recreation Center, which reopened earlier this year.

The revival of the Harlem Park Rec Center brings the total number to 44.

Councilman John “Doc” Bullock, whose 9th District includes includes the neighborhood, said Harlem Park became a “recreation desert” when the rec center shut down years ago.

But with its reopening, “now we’re seeing an oasis in the middle of this desert.”

And others are coming. Clemmons Brown said a rebuild is already underway for Bocek Rec Center in East Baltimore, and work will begin this fall at the Towanda Rec Center in Park Heights, which nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance took over in 2012 during the Rawlings-Blake administration’s spate of closures.

Next in line will be the North Harford Recreation Center near Northern Parkway and Harford Road, she said.

This story was updated.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...