A letter from West Baltimore

July 17, 1995|By Jocelyn A. Garlington

FOR ME, this has been a year of quiet and extraordinary change. Very recently, on a clear, remarkably bright and breezy afternoon, a river of reflection, on which I have been floating for the past few weeks, was spawned. The precipitating events, to those with little or no emotional investment in them, may seem small and even insignificant. But for me, there seems to be a silent but powerful tidal wave of change sweeping away my panic about the future and allowing me to float somewhat serenely on warm memories.

On the clear day of my "awakening," I was, as I have for the past several years, walking my 11-year-old Rottweiler, Onyx, on our customary route, down Winterbourne Road, along the edge of Leakin Park. Familiar and not so familiar cars passed with a quick toot of the horn, a hurried wave or a brisk "hello" barely heard but certainly felt. We were walking very slowly, feeling the yellow sunlight filter through the bright green foliage on the trees along our path and enjoying the perfection of those rare and wonderful Baltimore spring days. Onyx paused to raise her muzzle, catching more breeze. I leaned over and kissed her lightly on her head and said "You have been such a lovely friend." We walked together closely, her eyes conveying perfect understanding.

It was the day of Spencer Lewis' funeral, a neighbor I had waved to daily as he drove by. What I remember most about Mr. Spencer was his kindness; he would slow down when Onyx occasionally strolled into the path of his approaching van. He was someone I did not know well but liked very much; I will certainly miss him. I watched mourners driving tentatively, scanning the block for Mr. Lewis' address.

A few days before, Charles Dorsey, another longtime neighbor and friend passed away. He was someone I had known practically all of my life, from my association with his children in elementary school and his help and kindness to my family. Thoughts of the many neighbors who had died brought on a longing for the past, which was gradually replaced by a feeling of appreciation.

For a moment, in what felt like a Wordsworthian "spot in time," I breathed in all of the joy and sadness of living in one place for a long time. The sights, sounds, smells and memories rushed my senses and sent me sailing into a reverie from which I have yet to recover. I felt thoughts about the passage of time take form like a large cloud, enveloping my sensibilities, while at the same time illuminating my understanding of a realization that I perhaps had always carried around with me in my head but never embraced with my heart: Life is change.

Regarding matters closest to my heart, I have pretty much resisted change, although politically I have been change's most ardent proponent. I have referred to my living in the same neighborhood for most of my life as being very similar to being in an unhappy love relationship: intellectually leaving makes perfect sense, however, emotionally, leaving feels somehow impossible. Wander though I may from the comfortable and the familiar, inevitably I return to old surroundings and lifelong friends, and there remain comfortably nestled for as long as the gods and my ambitions will allow.

Even during those times when I am feeling most ambivalent, I consider it a privilege to still live in the West Baltimore neighborhood where I was raised and where I continue to see people who, over the years, have helped to shape my life and thinking about community. Sadly, though, many are passing away leaving, what seemed for a time, "unfillable" empty places in our small, tight-knit community of Fairmount Park. I am an ardent observer of the changes taking place in the neighborhood, many of which have brought more sadness than joy. Like other aging urban neighborhoods, crime has caught up to us and whittles away daily at our ability to trust. Some of the homes, once meticulously maintained, are falling into disrepair. Traffic has increased, along with trash and noise. And some of the most powerful and vocal community activists, have moved on, grown old or died. And yet, despite these disheartening realities, something comfortably stable and reassuring remains. Some days it is as basic as a warm feeling that comes from leaning on a familiar old tree, pausing to admire a neighbor's thriving tulips, admiring a weather-beaten fence, seeing an old Ford parked where it has always been parked, hearing an ageless dog in his yard barking, watching a plump cat slowly meandering across the street. There are reassurances of survival in the perpetual lean of a pine, a sagging gutter spout surviving the storm, the chips of paint clinging to a wood frame house, a distinguished older gentleman who keeps himself strong by walking.

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