In an open field on a hilltop overlooking industrialized South Baltimore, city officials plan to build a glossy, $14-million-dollar recreation center.

The proposed, 20,000-square-foot complex — which could include a gymnasium, fitness center, patio and gathering rooms — would replace the modest brick structure down the hill, Curtis Bay’s longtime rec center. Erected in 1950, the old building’s yellow paint is chipping away in places and the “A” in “RECREATION” hangs slightly askew. It sits across the street from South Baltimore’s CSX coal piers, which community members and citizen scientists report has been wafting coal dust over the neighborhood for years.

From the perspective of Mayor Brandon Scott and city parks officials, the promised new rec center, nearly a half mile farther from the coal piers, fills a need in a part of Baltimore that has been overlooked for far too long.

And yet, many in Curtis Bay aren’t on board.

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“You’re literally ripping the heart out of the community,” said David Jones, a Curtis Bay resident of 35-years, of the city’s plans to replace the center with a new one up the hill.

For Jones and like-minded neighbors, the removal of the decades-old rec center, their “diamond in the rough,” would be one more loss in a long history of disinvestment in South Baltimore. Jones and many neighbors remember how chemical companies and other industries slowly plowed away adjacent communities, clearing the peninsula east of Curtis Bay of homes a few decades ago. Though the city hasn’t signaled that anything of the kind is in store for Curtis Bay, plans to uproot the rec center have stirred up a familiar and deeply held anxiety.

They’ve seen this before, Jones says.

David Jones, looking to the left of the frame, poses for a portrait at Curtis Bay Park.
David Jones poses for a portrait at Curtis Bay Park on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. He is among a group of Curtis Bay residents opposed to the city’s plan to replace their recreational center. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Such resistance in Curtis Bay may signal a broader challenge for Baltimore leaders. The city is under tight deadlines to roll out a generational windfall of federal funds, $41 million of which Scott has pledged for restoring the city’s neglected system of parks and recreation centers. The first-term Democrat has prioritized getting much of the hundreds of millions in pandemic aid to low-income and marginalized communities.

But what happens when residents in those communities don’t trust that the city has their best interests at heart?

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Recreation and Parks Director Reginald Moore said in an interview that he wasn’t necessarily surprised by backlash to his plan in Curtis Bay, but also pitched the vision as a commonsense proposal that benefits everyone involved. The city has opted to build the rec center at what Moore considers an ideal location, just blocks from the current site, in a cluster of other athletic complexes and directly across the street from Curtis Bay Elementary School.

“It’s not about anyone winning or losing,” Moore said. “I think we’re all winners here.”

The word of city leaders, though, is hardly enough for some in Curtis Bay, what Jones considers “the forgotten part” of Baltimore.

“No one trusts the city. No one trusts the city at all,” he said. “Why would we?”

The exterior entrance of the Curtis Bay Recreation Center.
The Curtis Bay Recreation Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. The city is planning to replace the current recreational center with a new one, which has raised concerns among some residents. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The front line

It wasn’t so long ago that a few hundred people lived across the CSX railroad tracks from Curtis Bay, in Baltimore’s former neighborhoods of Fairfield and Wagner’s Point. Over the years, those communities were subsumed by industry, and, after a series of explosions and cancer deaths, the remaining residents secured buyouts from the city and chemical companies and moved away in the late 1990s.

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One of the last Wagner’s Point residents posted a “STILL HERE” sign on his door to ward off looters, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2000, until he, too, took the money and left.

The industrial parks and brownfields common in South Baltimore serve as reminders to those in Curtis Bay of what could happen to them. That history of displacement was among the reasons the Community of Curtis Bay Association cited in a July resolution opposing the city’s plan to move the rec center.

For Meg Chow, a biomedical engineer and organizer with Coal-Free Curtis Bay, the dispute over the decades-old rec center is about more than just a municipal building. Little more than a one-way road separates the rec center from open train cars of coal at the CSX terminal — “like a literal embodiment of the front line,” Chow said. She sees the building as part of Curtis Bay’s longer struggle to hold its ground against the industrial presence around it.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Chow said. “The coal should leave — not the community.”

CSX spokesperson Sheriee Bowman said in a statement that the rail company hasn’t been engaged in the rec center plans. CSX has invested more than $4 million to support Baltimore communities since 2016, Bowman said, and “would be happy to explore future opportunities to partner with the center.”

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A wide shot of the Curtis Bay community meeting. A large hand-drawn banner reading "No coal in Curtis Bay, go green!" hands in the background.
Students participating in the Environmental Justice Workshop present their preliminary research findings on measuring coal dust in Curtis Bay on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Resistance to moving the rec center doesn’t come down to purely existential concerns about industrial sprawl. Some residents don’t consider the proposed site a part of Curtis Bay proper, arguing instead that the location was chosen because of its convenience to Brooklyn, to the west. It’s also at the top of a steep hill, an incline that could pose accessibility problems.

And until earlier this year, residents were told by the Scott administration that the city would be rebuilding at the current rec center site, in the heart of Curtis Bay.

Preliminary designs for that scrapped plan still sit inside the front door of the current center, outlining a vision for a gymnasium, outdoor basketball court, playground and splash pad. The city even commissioned a 1,400-page environmental review for that plan, shared with The Banner by the Community of Curtis Bay Association. When the mayor debuted his $41 million pledge to parks and rec centers in February of 2022, he made the announcement at the current Curtis Bay center, a sign, residents felt, of his commitment to that site.

So when city officials announced their pivot this spring, it blindsided many residents in the neighborhood.

The extent of dissatisfaction with the new approach, though, isn’t clear. Over the summer, Chow and the community association knocked on doors to poll residents in the area. While most surveyed weren’t aware that the city was pursuing a new rec center, an overwhelming majority — 81% — said they preferred the current site over moving it up the hill.

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Still, some parents of students at Curtis Bay Elementary School told The Banner they don’t use the facility down the hill and would appreciate the convenience of a rec center next to where their kids attend school. Kelsey Saddler questioned why the city is pumping millions into a new rec center while Curtis Bay Elementary remains one of the last schools in Baltimore without air conditioning, but she and a group of two other parents also said they liked the proposed site over the existing location.

Several parents said that they don’t feel safe bringing their kids to the location down the hill, an area known for attracting crime and drug deals. In 2021, a police officer was shot fatally near the site.

“I think it’d be wonderful,” said Jessica Musgrave, a Brooklyn resident whose son attends Curtis Bay Elementary, of the city’s revised plan. Because of safety concerns, Musgrave and her son don’t use the rec center at the bottom of the hill. The proposed location serves as a midpoint between Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, and Musgrave feels having the resource there would “open up the community.”

Some critics of the city’s plan, though, argue the opposite. At a lightly attended input session one night last month, Jones pressed parks officials on when the mayor would come down to Curtis Bay himself to hear why residents don’t want their rec center moved.

“You guys only see what you see. You don’t see the bigger picture here,” he said. Jones, who leads a community policing initiative in South Baltimore, argued that ideas floated by the city for facilitating access to the rec center for both Brooklyn and Curtis Bay will heighten crime problems in his area. “You’re gonna put this big, shiny thing up here, and you’re swearing that this is gonna curb the issues in this area. It’s not. It’s gonna cause more issues.”

Meleny Thomas wears a mask with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust logo on it as she listens to the community meeting.
Meleny Thomas, executive director of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, listens during a Curtis Bay community meeting on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

After the meeting, Meleny Thomas, executive director of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said she’s less concerned about the location than the city’s approach to the decision. A Curtis Bay resident of about 17 years, she noted that few of her neighbors were present that night to respond to the agency’s plans, a result, she said, of alienation from the city’s process. Thomas spoke alongside Scott at the Curtis Bay rec center when he first announced the $41 million of projects and understood at the time that the city was going to redevelop the current site.

South Baltimore desperately needs this kind of investment to transition from heavy industry to communities, Thomas said.

“Anytime you’re surrounded by a lot of industry, you’d have some of that anxiety,” she said. You wonder, “Is our community next?”

‘A City Hall perspective’

For some Baltimore officials, criticism of the multimillion-dollar plan misses its great benefit.

Even with the rec center moving, Moore said, the city plans to upgrade the park space surrounding the current location, not cede it to industry.

“I’ve heard the community say some things about disinvestment,” the rec and parks director said. “But we’re investing. This is still Curtis Bay community, last I checked.”

Baltimore City Recreation and Parks has taken an extra two months to assess community input and develop plans for the new site, according to an agency spokesperson. Officials solicited feedback on preliminary designs at their community event last month and aim to break ground sometime next year.

At this point, Moore said, they have to press forward. The city has until the end of 2026 to spend the American Rescue Plan money allocated for the project, and a presentation shared with community members last month slates construction completion for the fall of that year.

Eric Schleibaum, a developer restoring vacant housing in Curtis Bay, was initially encouraged by the city’s plan to build a new rec center. In recent years, it’s felt like the tide is turning for the South Baltimore neighborhood, he said, and the city’s plan to restore the longstanding rec looked to him like a commitment to help out.

But as Schleibaum, who lives in Catonsville, watched Baltimore leaders change course, he’s come to think the city may be investing millions of dollars into a facility nobody will use.

As good as the plan looks on paper, officials are thinking with a “City Hall perspective” that misses realities distinct to Curtis Bay, like neighborhood crime dynamics and the steep hill, he said. “You guys really don’t understand what’s going on [down here],” he added. “You don’t understand how kids play down here.”

The CSX facility as visible from the Curtis Bay neighborhood in August. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

As the parks department and Curtis Bay association have gone back and forth, South Baltimore Councilwoman Phylicia Porter has served as a mediator, community members said. In an interview, Porter didn’t take a side on the city’s controversial plan.

“I’m trying to bridge a gap and find consensus,” she said, adding that she supports what “the entire community wants.”

But the rec center “is more than just a building,” Porter added. For years, it’s been “a community hub” for businesses, gatherings and voting — a legacy she said is important to preserve. The South Baltimore councilwoman pointed to a possible compromise she helped negotiate that would have the city move ahead with its plan while allowing a local group to take over the current location, leasing it at a dollar a year for 99 years. She expressed confidence that the city will find someone to preserve the building.

Though there have been discussions of the option with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, the group hasn’t yet accepted, and Recreation and Parks spokesman Kevin Nash said the agency is exploring other options for leasing the rec center.

For Angie Shaneyfelt, a community liaison for The Well, a South Baltimore women’s resource center, “bigger isn’t better.” She’s come to love the dilapidated yellow building on Filbert Street, where she and her husband go on Fridays to play pool. Their two daughters visit nearly every day for activities like karate or table tennis. One daughter, an especially zealous player, acquired her own paddle that only she uses. She stashes it at the rec.

The displacement of residents years ago in Wagner’s Point and Fairfield looms large for Shaneyfelt when she thinks of the city’s plan. Residents in Curtis Bay are used to having their concerns overlooked by the city, she said.

If the old rec center goes, she said, “that leaves us with nothing. Yet again, they’ve taken stuff away.”

Curtis Bay Recreation Center’s signage outside of the building. Some of the letters are starting to fall off.
Letters on Curtis Bay Recreation Center’s signage show their age on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. The city is planning to replace the current recreational center with a new facility, raising concerns among some residents. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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