Marian Muhammad acknowledges she once was considered an “at-risk” youth, more by geography than anything else. Growing up in the city’s Central Ward, though, she had options that many of Newark’s teens do not enjoy today.
“When I was growing up, there was a boys’ club to go to,” she said. “I had some place to go. When they tore that down, kids were out on the streets.”
Muhammad, who went on to become the head of the International Boxing Federation, was on hand Thursday for the opening of a community and recreation center that sits practically on the spot of the housing project where she was raised.
“It really means a lot to me,” Muhammad said. “We need to foster that well-roundedness that these at-risk youth must have. We teach them about self-control, self-respect. It’s a start, and hopefully it won’t stop here.”
The center was hailed as a major step forward in Mayor Cory A. Booker’s efforts to provide recreational alternatives in a city where homicides and gun violence remain at high levels. Nicknamed “The Club House,” it features a dance studio, computer facility, recording studio and exercise center and will offer classes and programs.
Thursday’s launch featured a who’s who of boxing legends that included former heavyweight champions Michael Spinks and Joe Frazier and promoter Don King, who flashed his trademark gold-toothed smile and, as is his custom, clasped two miniature American flags as he stepped into the regulation-size boxing ring. King quipped that he was going to sign up Booker as his next future champion.
“We are restructuring our community to redirect their energies in a positive and constructive direction,” King said. “I applaud Mayor Booker.”
Booker donned boxing gloves and playfully sparred with some of the young boxers who later put on a short demonstration. Boxing programs will be one of the facility’s centerpieces.
“There is such an urgent need for recreation throughout the city,” Booker said. “This took a lot of money and a lot of capital dollars, but the number one priority has got to be children and investing in our future.”
According to Modia Butler, chairman of the board of commissioners for the Newark Housing Authority, which will operate the center, federal guidelines require community centers to be part of public housing projects. While many of these often serve as meeting places, the new center will provide a wider range of activities and has the potential to reach a larger base.
It also represents an improvement over Newark’s aging network of community centers, he said.
“There are a limited number and the ones you have are ratty and tattered,” Butler said. “There are places where young people can go, but some of the programs are outmoded and outdated. This is cutting-edge.”
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