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300 E 29th St. might seem like just an address, but for many it’s a location that evokes great emotion. Dozens of youths in Baltimore City call this place, known humbly as the 29th St. Community Center, a second home.

Mondays at the rec center are synonymous with various words but none are more applicable than “chaos.” As the clock strikes 5:30, clamoring begins at the center’s entrance. After nearly half a minute of waiting, the incessant pounding on the door grows louder as the hinges begin to rattle and writhe in agony. 

 “We only get two hours a week to play basketball, man,” says the irate youth. “Someone gotta be there to open the door.”

You see, Monday night is open gym night for youths 17 and over. And no one misses open gym night.

One by one these attendees file in through the entrance and meander their way to a 74-foot haven disguised as a basketball court. In each corner rests a two-level set of bleachers, at this point only occupied by those lacing up their sneakers. The gym walls are wrapped in bright yellow paint accented now by the setting sun.

With each passing second the gym gains more and more occupants, although the hard, wooden floors of the court will be the main attraction, a quick tour of the building exposes the extensive framework within the community center.

Peruse these hallways and the eclectic mix of programs is striking. Take a right at the bottom of the stairs and there is a group of Johns Hopkins students enamoring middle-school aged children with robotics. Continue down the hall and there are chances to ascertain how to pull of the newest dance moves.

On the other side of the mechanical dynamos, lies the crafting room, ripe with Halloween decorations as the highly anticipated holiday quickly approaches. In the center stands one child, a girl no more than 8-years-old.

“Whatcha up to?” says Jenny, a young, vibrant worker.

“Just painting,” responds the young girl, as her voice is barely audible because of the lollipop hanging from her mouth. Clearly sending a message that her visionary artwork needs no assistance.

It is now 6 o’clock and the crowd has amassed on the second story of the Barclay School. No less than a dozen basketballs fly frantically through the air. Within the clutter lies a diverse set of interactions. There are one-on-one games between similarly skilled players, next to them is a high school student playing keep away from a boy no older than 10.

“Come on, give me the ball,” shouts the young boy.

“You’re gonna have to take it from me,” states the elder of the two.

Each time the young boy goes on the offensive, his attempt is countered, seemingly a step slow as expected. Eventually, he baits the mentor into a mistake and claims the coveted ball.

“Now you take me!” demands the boy.

But the court is now barren. The opening sideshows give way to the main attraction: Five on five, first to 11, and the most anticipated words of the night are finally uttered; “Ball in.”

*

Surrounded by echoes of laughter from the shenanigans of a newly discovered dance move and the squeaks of pivoting sneakers during a heated basketball game, it’s hard to imagine that this time last year, the 29th Street Community Center was just another ghostly vacant building.

The 29th Street Community Center, formerly known as the Barclay Recreation Center, has been given a new name to go along with a fresh new start. A fresh start is exactly what the Greater Homewood Community Corporation had in mind when they set out to rehab Barclay Recreation Center into the vibrantly colorful building that it is today. Breathing life back into the Barclay Recreation Center is one of the more recent accomplishments of GBCC and is part of a much bigger picture.

“This building had been shut down for two years,” says Hannah Gardi, director and community builder at the 29th St Community Center. “Literally no one could enter. There were no programs for kids. No programs for adults. There was no place for people to come together.”

Greater Homewood Community Corporation first opened their doors to Baltimore in 1969. Ever since, this non-profit organization has been on a mission to restore the shine in charm city.  Working towards revitalizing and strengthening urban communities in North Central Baltimore, GBCC has undoubtedly made its mark. 

GHCC adheres to civic duty, community support and is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of individuals who reside in these struggling neighborhoods.  The countless projects, contributions and charitable events organized by GHCC are aimed to forge the community together and encourage community leadership and volunteer work. AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) has joined forces with GHCC. AmeriCorps is an organization that provides volunteers to assist in the fight against poverty in America. 

Currently, GHCC manages 25 VISTA sites in Maryland.  GHCC has worked toward promoting healthy neighborhoods, minimizing crime, rebuilding and renovating houses and schools, funding for schools, youth activities and programs, adult education, and workforce connections.

“We worked together with a group of residents who really wanted to see this space opened again,” Gardi says emphatically. “We envisioned with them what they wanted to see so it wouldn’t just be what it was before but it would be bigger and better.”

Continually making strides in community improvement, GHCC’s most recent accomplishments are indicative to what the organization stands for. The 29th Street Community Center is a step towards a brighter future for the youth in the area. Part of GHCC’s mission is to promote healthy neighborhoods and by doing so, it means reducing crime.

An engaging safe haven, like the 29th Street Community Center, is a place where Baltimore’s youth can go as an escape, to channel positive energy, creativity and could be what saves lives.

*

Steve, one of the operators at the center, shouts for everyone to sign in before they can play. He is a bit short and wears a big smile, but his booming voice of authority gives him a strong presence and commands respect. Yet, his persisting smile maintains his friendliness and appreciation by everyone around. They knew he was just doing his job of keeping everyone in check, abiding by the policies.

Most players are young men. Some are preadolescent boys who had been playing earlier in the day, who had played some practice rounds with the older guys during the transitional time period right as the 17-and-up crowd first started coming in. There are very few girls in the room.

It is an unofficial men’s night of friendly athletic faire, and even with Steve’s loud voice and supervision, this night is run by the youth. To them, this place is their own home, and they treat it as such. Steve’s control doesn’t really matter to them. They show him respect because they choose to. Everyone who has come out to play basketball is here just to play.

Participating in a game is on a first-come, first-serve basis, using a handwritten signup sheet. There are only small bleachers in the already-small gymnasium. Many of the young men crowd together, sitting tightly and compactly on the bleachers, keeping their eyes on the sheet. Everyone is eager to go. The younger boys stick around just to watch.

Intensity fills the room. This is one of their passions. Some of the participating young men make some NBA players look meek. They have one night a week, and only two hours, for open gym time, and they know how to make the most of it.

Yells echo through the gym, but only in the same manner one would typically expect from a gymnasium. None of it is capricious. The shouting, cheering, clapping, and whooping is a sign of a whole roomful of young men being together and playing a good game. There are no problems, complaints, or bad sportsmanship shown.

Everyone is tightly packed together in the small space and enjoying what has been made into a tradition. The young men have taken Monday nights, a time that would likely be a dull evening for anyone else, and made them into a time of excitement and fair competition. The activity is fun, the crowd is all friends, and the center itself is a home. No one needs any personal space apart from each other.

*

When the Barclay Recreation Center reopened its doors last May, it was met with an outpour of community support. After all, the community is largely the reason why the 29th Street Community Center operates today. It’s a collaborative GHCC project was made possible from the collective efforts of Barclay Elementary and Middle school, along with members of the community.

Opening day was a celebratory one. Over 150 neighbors came and participated in games, artwork, and enjoyed food and music. A definite cause for celebration, especially since the city’s budget cuts back in 2011, proposed to close the doors of many rec centers in Baltimore City.  This did not sit well with the community, which had major concerns for Baltimore’s youth having less and less places to go, to stay out of trouble. As a result, the budget cuts became the catalyst for the 29th Street Community Center.

“It’s amazing to see what has happened here,” utters Gardi. “We opened in May and in the summer we just served kids. We served 200 kids this summer and in September we opened Fall programs. We are now serving 365 people with over 20 programs. There is no rec center or community center that is serving as many people as we are or has as many programs as us.”

The 29th Street Community Center was created for the neighborhood and largely in part, by the neighborhood, therefore, the center’s   slogan reads, “Where neighbors come together.”  Programs for all age groups are available and the fall schedule has very diverse options for kids and teens to choose from.  Kids programs include:  dance, art, music lessons, robotics club, martial arts, a teen girls club, and programs for infants and toddlers. Adult programs include: line dancing, ALC Computer classes, and a fitness class that incorporates dance.

The center also provides programs for all ages, such as: the open gym for basketball games, Yoga classes, drawing classes, table tennis, and a dance class. During the summer the center partnered with the Parks and People Foundation to form SuperKids Camp. It’s a summer program modeled after the programs that the Parks and People Foundation created in response to the 1997 literacy crisis.

SuperKids Camp provides summer learning through fun activities. Built to improve academic performance and preventing kids from falling behind in school during the summer, SuperKids is aimed to make learning fun through character building exercises and activities for all academic subjects.

“70 percent of the programs are run by local residents” says Gardi with a broad smile on her face. “We’re really committed to making everything community led.”

*

The game’s excitement comes to a close. The crowded and small gymnasium begins to empty. Steve is already downstairs. He knows that everyone who came out for the open gym know what to do, or can guide those who aren’t sure, ensuring all supplies and gear are put away, and the gym is left in quality condition. The moon has risen, it is past 8 now., and all begin to go.

The quiet, however, does not die down. Not until all the young men have left the center is there any sense of serenity. Which is highly desired, according to Steve.

“The center does exactly what it is designed to,” he says, perfectly audibly through the sudden quiet at the recreation center. “It provides resources and services to residents of the Baltimore community—children and adults both.”

Most of the young men who came out to play basketball simply walked from their homes directly to the center. And when they got in, they dominated the center right away. They knew the drill, and they knew what they wanted to do: play basketball. And they did it, for a solid and exciting two hours. Not enough time, according to some of the guys. But they loved it.

Steve has a strong reason for why there is such positivity at the center each Monday night. It comes from ownership. The young adult men in the community come out on their own and just take over. They bond with one another, and with the younger kids who are using the center prior to their arrival. The center itself is a home, and the people inside a family. And everyone knows it.

“They police it all themselves,” Steve says. One child had taken on responsibilities as Steve’s unofficial office assistant, even though neither Steve nor the center had asked for the help. Most of the younger audiences do need more guidance, however.

On Wednesdays, the open gym is for younger members of the youth and isn’t so business-like. Sometimes the younger audience will opt to play a different sport, maybe dodge ball, or might have to take some time to decide on other activities for themselves. Even so, the place is just as much a home for them as the 17-and-up crowd.

The 29th Street Community Center is a place where no one allows themselves to be left out. Participants know what the center can do for them, and they make sure to achieve what they are seeking. They walk in and do as they please. There is no reason for them not to. The community center is a home.

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