Every year in September, Tracey Malone hosts an event filled with free food, giveaways, games and music in Sandtown-Winchester in honor of her brother who was shot and killed in the West Baltimore neighborhood in 2013.
Last summer, a young kid came up to her at the event and said it was the most fun he had all year. He even brought nearly two dozen other kids to enjoy the event. His response stuck with Malone, who then started thinking about activities and places with programs for youth in the neighborhood. There weren’t many options, she concluded, and to top it off, the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center was closed.
“In a community like this, something that small, it shouldn’t take nine months for a kid to say this is the most fun they had all year,” Malone said.
Malone made it a goal then to get the recreation center reopened. She reached out to different city departments and officials to get answers, but didn’t have success. She was then advised to find power in numbers and started asking others to come together to find solutions.
The result was Showdown for Sandtown: a collection of 22 organizations — many based in the neighborhood — that have come together to try and get the recreation center reopened. They also plan to address other long-standing and future issues in the neighborhood, such as preserving green spaces and keeping people informed about what’s happening in the community.
“Everyone does something different but we all have a common cause not to just reopen Lillian Jones, but to preserve the culture of the community and create an environment where citizens are going to thrive,” said Eri Whitney Young, a Sandtown resident and member of Showdown for Sandtown.
The Lillian Jones Recreation Center closed in recent years after two break-ins left electrical wiring cut and copper piping stolen. The break-ins caused damage to plumbing and electrical systems throughout the building which could cost over $2 million to completely replace, according to an emailed response from Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. A metal sheet on the front entrance of the building now blocks people from coming in.
The parks department also wrote in an email that funding is needed for repairs and adequate security measures should be in place before they can move forward with renovations. Some funding allocated in this year’s budget will be used for a consultant to figure out the best location for a new Lillian Jones Recreation Center, according to the parks department. It’s part of a systemwide comprehensive plan that will survey city facilities.
But building an entirely new center could take years, and Showdown for Sandtown wants something for kids in the meantime. Malone said there was little known about when or if the recreation center would ever reopen, and several other entities with spaces available in the neighborhood were unwilling to house the children and programming.
Young said they started a petition — collecting over 600 signatures — to see who wants the recreation center reopened. A lot of residents, she said, didn’t even know it was closed.
The closure of the recreation center, which also served as a polling place, joins other shutdowns and not-so-good changes in the neighborhood, Young added. One of the only grocery stores in the neighborhood closed in 2014. A local laundromat shuttered and a Kids Safe Zone and Family Support Center moved in to the neighborhood after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Gray, who died from injuries sustained in police custody, was arrested in Sandtown-Winchester. The center and fun zone closed in 2018. There was also a Boys and Girls Club that opened after Gray’s death, but it only lasted a year because funding ran out.
Councilman James Torrence said there was discussion about transporting kids to Harlem Park Recreation Center, but the city is having a hard time recruiting drivers with commercial driver’s licenses despite the city offering $10,000 bonuses to those with CDL licenses to work in specific city agencies, including Recreation and Parks.
Jeffrey Thompson, founder and executive director of 10:12 Sports, said he joined Showdown for Sandtown because many of the organizations are pushing for similar goals with kids as a priority. Thompson’s nonprofit offers young men in West Baltimore mentoring, job training and leadership development.
“Showdown for Sandtown is something that tells the city we have to do right by folks and we can’t just leave our babies out here with nothing and expect that it’s okay,” Thompson said.
In just four months, Malone said it seems they are making progress. Torrence said he is working with the Department of General Services to try and get the recreation center opened by the fall.
“Now that they see Sandtown has unified and come together, they can’t use that as an excuse anymore. They can’t say that Sandtown don’t want it,” Malone said.
In the meantime, Torrence said the goal is to work with Showdown for Sandtown to get funding for place-based programming during the summer until they get the recreation center up to par. He asked the group to plan out and budget events through the end of the year.
“The most pleasing part is we now have people in Sandtown we are able to partner with,” Torrence said.
Young and Malone said Showdown for Sandtown is just getting started as far as addressing different issues in the community. Next they’d like to see new playground equipment at William McAbee Park. Young said she is taking the promises and plans with a grain of salt until they actually happen, but the community isn’t staying quiet about issues.
“The people of Sandtown know what Sandtown needs. … They deserve to not be ignored any longer,” Young said.