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Newark activists say more rec centers are needed to combat youth crime

CRAIG D. FRAZIER Special to the AmNews | 9/13/2012, 12:53 p.m.

Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker and Tharien Karim Arnold, director of Neighborhood and Recreational Services, recently came under fire from community organizations after they announced the city's recreation centers will have delayed opening hours at the start of this school year.

Recreation has been a major priority in Newark. After millions of dollars of capital investment, every city recreation facility was rehabilitated and programs expanded. The mayor urged all residents to take advantage of the centers, especially the health and fitness programs.

"All of the recreation centers offer an exciting range of free activities and programs for residents of all ages to strengthen their minds and bodies," Booker said.

Community activists say that the overhaul of the recreation centers is good, but more recreation centers are needed and current centers should have longer hours in order to curb violence. No one knows more about the potential risks of violence that Newark youth face on the streets better than Bashir Akinyele. Akinyele is a Newark schoolteacher and one of the coordinators of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition. His organization, along with community activists and faith leaders, has conducted anti-violence protests for the past 163 weeks to highlight issues of violence. They want Newark to declare this problem a public health emergency.

"Any time recreation centers reduce their hours, it can affect children that need vital services that can prevent them from being victims of senseless violence," said Akinyele. "These centers can be an alternative to children who are susceptible to street violence."

According to CityStatistics.com, there has been an overall downward trend in Newark's crime rate. Crime in 2012 is expected to be lower than last year. but Newark still remains one of the most violent cities in America, based on the national violent crime index.

"I think services should be available from the time school is finished until at least 11 p.m.," Akinyele said. He feels that this idea would raise eyebrows, but there are a significant number of children who are homeless, with no family and nowhere to go. Add that to the high number of unemployed and disadvantaged youth between the ages of 18 and 25, and this issue becomes very relevant.

"Recreation centers are more than just a place to play basketball. It is a place for shelter, a place to do homework and an outlet where youth should be able to utilize mentorship," Akinyele explains. "A myriad of services could be available if recreation centers had longer hours. Unfortunately, our youth are not getting these things at home. This is why youth centers are so vital to the growth and development of our youth."

Booker was not available for comment on longer hours and the need for more recreation centers by the time the Amsterdam News went to press this week. The Newark Press Information Office released the following statement: "The Police Department has an alliance with houses of worship on enforcing the curfew ordinances during the summer. Rather than take youth who violate our curfew to police stations, we take them to participating houses of worship for their parents or guardians to pick up, where they can get counseling and intervention."