Beauty springs from the soil of soiled neighborhoods

April 13, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Anyone who's written off Baltimore as a dying city should take a look at a photo exhibit opening today at a gallery in City Hall.

It documents the transformation of trash-strewn lots and alleys in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, Greenmount and Pigtown into verdant oases through a program called the Baltimore Urban Resources Initiative.

Over the course of three summers, photographer Steffi Graham chronicled the Initiative, a partnership that links interns from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with community groups, volunteers and Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks.

The photo project began with a few shots here and there. Soon, "it became sort of a passion," Ms. Graham says.

Today, her photo exhibit, "Baltimore Greening Baltimore," opens the City Hall Courtyard Galleries at Baltimore City Hall.

Completed solely on volunteer time, the show allows public access to parts of the city that are often feared and dismissed. It is picture proof that hard by the ugliness of inner-city life, another, less scrutinized reality can co-exist, thrive, even overcome.

Ms. Graham photographed community foresters building tree nurseries on formerly refuse-clotted lots. And she recorded park and recreation employees learning about the fragile watershed in which they work.

The photo exhibit also illustrates the importance of being sensitive to others' feelings when undertaking these kinds of projects. For example, on stifling summer nights, Yale intern Erin Hughes went stoop to stoop in the Hollins and Pigtown neighborhoods to canvass residents about trees.

Later, in a review of her summer's work, Ms. Hughes noted: "Community foresters, concerned with improving local environments and strengthening the local communities, must learn and understand the social context and the ecology of the neighborhood or village where they are working." Without an understanding, such endeavors are doomed, interns concluded. Today, tree projects in the Hollins Market and Pigtown areas are flourishing.

The rewards of respecting a neighborhood's unique identity are evident in the quotes that accompany the photographs. "If people feel that the community is taking part, taking care of even just the street trees, there might be a feeling of community and that you do have people who do care around here, and it shouldn't become another slum area," says one community participant. For longtime Greenmount West community activist Charles Smith, planting trees is a way to reunite communities torn apart by crime, violence and poverty.

Children are key in this process, he says. "It's a growing thing," he says.

"Not only is the tree growing, something inside the child is growing [that allows the child to say], 'It's here because of me. I can't restore a vandalized house or remove an abandoned car, but this tree is growing because of me.' "

Through its trees, a community can mend itself, Mr. Smith says. Cohesion "comes from a green space where everyone gets to know one another. They can do for themselves. They don't have to go begging from city or state or federal resources."

GO GREEN

What: "Baltimore Greening Baltimore"

When: Free public reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today; hours are 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. weekdays. The exhibit will continue through May 13.

Where: City Courtyard Galleries, on the first floor of City Hall at 100 N. Holliday St.

Admission: Free

Call: (410) 396-5176

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