Vandalism closes Westside Recreation Center in Chattanooga

Vandalism closes Westside Recreation Center in Chattanooga

August 4th, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Reflecting children's artwork on the walls, mirrors were smashed by vandals over the weekend in the game room of the Westside Recreation Center at College Hill Courts.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Veronica Glasco, recreation specialist at the city's recreation center at the College Hill Courts, talks about some of the damage inflicted upon the center Saturday by vandals.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Water fountains wrenched from the side of the walls. Air conditioning units torn from their wires. A soda machine heaved upside down. Shattered mirrors.

The vandalism over the weekend to the Westside Recreation Center ranges from the dangerous -- disabled fire alarms -- to what seems like casual cruelty -- a baseball bat left hanging from the hole it pierced the ceiling.

Veronica Glasco, recreation specialist at the center in College Hill Courts, said the building has suffered break-ins before, but nothing this malicious. And nothing that has forced the center to close its doors, which it's been forced to do this week because the place is now riddled with safety hazards.

"It just hurts," Glasco said Wednesday while studying two gaping holes in the kitchen sinks that used to be faucets. "I just don't know why anyone would do all of it. Our whole reason for being here is to help people."

A center staff member discovered the wreckage Monday morning, but officials aren't certain when the vandals struck. They broke in through a back door, cut the alarm system, then wreaked havoc on the building for an hour or longer, Glasco said.

Nothing was tagged with graffiti, and no written messages were left. The extensive damages seemed to be message enough.

As far as Glasco knows, the center doesn't have any enemies.

The Chattanooga Police Department, which is handling the investigation, had made no arrests in the case as of Wednesday.

But there's word around the neighborhood of who is responsible. Glasco said officials believe it's a group of juveniles who live in the College Hill Courts.

There are no cost estimates for the damage yet, but they likely will stretch into the thousands, said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department.

And because the building's furniture and equipment are owned by the Chattanooga Housing Authority, Parks and Recreation and the YMCA, figuring out who foots the bill for which repairs adds an additional burden to the recovery process, Smith said.

Though Parks and Recreation officials are saying it could take a month before they're able to reopen the center, workers are scrambling to at least get the building back up to code by next week, when school starts. During the school year, 50 to 60 children attend after-school programs at the center.

If the center's not ready in time, the department will try to temporarily transport the kids to other recreation centers, Smith said.

"We've rolled our sleeves up," said Solomon McGee, site director with the Hamilton County Department of Education, which runs programs at the building. "We've got to get ready, got to move on."

While College Hill Courts received intensified media scrutiny for a rash of violence on its streets this year -- including four shootings since March -- the community center has continued its steady work to fight crime and poverty with education and community, producing stories of success and redemption that rarely get told, Glasco said.

It's a place for kids to be tutored, or to play a game of pickup basketball out of the scorching sun. During the summer, there are camps, sports activities, arts and crafts, cooking lessons. There are church services there twice a week. Workers hold parties for the kids for every holiday.

"This whole place is for the kids," Glasco said. "For a lot of them, their world is just home, school and here."

Several boys were hanging around the center Wednesday, throwing a few basketballs around the gym, which has been cleaned up.

"It makes me mad. You've got a lot of kids and their parents work, and then when they come back from school, where are they going to go?" asked 9-year-old Tarik Herring.

His friend, William Ball, just shrugged.

"I guess I'm just going to go home and sleep the rest of the afternoon," he said.