EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — At a place and on a day that bears his name, a group of volunteers pitched in to further the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Monday served as the kickoff for a massive community-led undertaking to renovate East Cleveland’s recreation center, the Dr. Martin Luther King Civic Center.
With hammers and pry bars in hand, dozens of volunteers removed the aging and sagging gym floor piece by piece, providing a staccato symphony of demolition.
Other volunteers pushed or towed large carts that had the disassembled flooring piled high. It was a well-oiled machine comprised largely of people with no formal training.
What they did have, however, was passion for their community.
“I did not expect this many people to show up. We had a hard time promoting it. We thought maybe it would be too last minute,” said 18-year-old Chantal Brown, one of the first volunteers to sign up. “I’m glad that a lot of people had the same concerns that I do.”
For the past few years, the soon-to-be-removed playing surface at the recreation center had fallen into serious disrepair. Large portions of the floor were either sagging, bowing or missing altogether.
The expansive space, which includes a boxing ring, exercise equipment and four basketball courts, served the western half of East Cleveland, providing a place where kids and adults alike could exercise and congregate. The condition of the facility left it nearly unusable.
“The main issue we had was the basketball court having dents and bumps, you’d trip over it when you try to make a shot,” Brown said. “To me it wasn’t rough until I’d go somewhere else and look at their facility. I said, ‘wow, ours could look way better.’”
The city of East Cleveland knew it too, but paying for it was another matter entirely.
The cost of making the necessary repairs, including a new playing surface, new equipment, a fresh coat of paint and repairs to the HVAC system, ballooned to well over a half-million dollars. The cash-strapped city had difficult financing the repairs.
That’s where two area non-profits stepped in: Birthing Beautiful Communities and East Cleveland RISE.
Over the past year, the two charitable, community-minded organizations managed to cobble together private and corporate donations, including contributions from Home Depot, Sherwin Williams, Northern Ohio Timber and Lumber and General Electric.
By having volunteers do the work, the $260,000 project to replace the floor was whittled down to a more manageable number.
East Cleveland Mayor Brandon King, who used to play in the MLK Civic Center as a kid, said the upgraded facility will be a beacon of light in the community.
“There were a ton of other after school programs when I grew up here in the city. What this does is keep kids off the street,” Mayor King said.
Over the coming days, weeks and months, the volunteers will remove the rest of the existing floor before a new concrete foundation can be laid. The fading paint will receive a vibrant new coat. New equipment will also be installed.
Brown said the project will instill a sense of a community and civic pride.
“I’m going to feel really proud of myself and everyone else for being willing to get off the couch and pitch in,” Brown said. “I think more people will take more pride in it because it’s something they built.”