Strangers no longer Cooperation: Greater Homewood is pioneering a movement where city residents go beyond the borders of their neighborhoods to become active members of less- fortunate communities.

November 14, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Inside a nearly forgotten Greenmount Avenue recreation center, a little revolution is just beginning.

Once-empty rooms are filled with strangers from other neighborhoods teaching art, coaching soccer and helping children with their homework.

What's happening at the recreation center is the beginning of a movement of residents from wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods -- tired of making do with dwindling city resources -- who are reaching beyond their borders to solve the city's problems.

For the recreation center on a haggard block of Greenmount Avenue in the East Baltimore Midway community, it means that a well-to-do woman from Guilford has squeezed enough money from the city budget to rebuild the center's ugly facade, and has drafted students and faculty from the Johns Hopkins University to tutor and coach the neighborhood children.

Laura Perry is the woman, dedicated to city living and motivated by a desire to end her own fear of street crime.

"The city doesn't have the money to do what we need to do. So what are we going to do? Let the programs wither, or ask the people who have the resources to step forward and share?" she said from her comfortable downtown office at the law firm of Piper and Marbury, where she works in marketing and publications.

Every time she's scared to walk along Greenmount Avenue, said Perry, she thinks of all the women who live there and how they must feel.

"If all of us walked their streets with them, their streets would be safe," she said. Perry is no stranger to community involvement, having served for eight years on the Schmoke administration's Recreation and Parks Board.

A year ago, she agreed to be on a committee for Greater Homewood Community Corporation that was created to help women and children in the north and central Baltimore neighborhoods that Greater Homewood serves.

The committee is one of several that are part of a project called the Greater Homewood Renaissance.

At a meeting tonight they will recruit community residents for projects ranging from the Greenmount Avenue center to coordinating local health services, finding alternatives to bad city schools and reviving business districts. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the cafeteria at Union Memorial Hospital, 201 E. University Parkway.

Like-minded city residents say do-it-yourself projects are springing up all over Baltimore out of frustration with an underfunded city government and -- many say privately -- a Schmoke administration that they say is aloof to community problems.

At the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, for example, developers, real estate agents and community leaders from the richest and poorest neighborhoods have been meeting since May to come up with a plan to sell Baltimore to prospective house buyers.

In the Greater Homewood area, the Johns Hopkins University has assigned an assistant provost -- Janet Sanfilippo -- to help organize the renaissance project. In a few months, she said, she's found "an incredible energy on this grass-roots level."

Residents have decided "you can either quit and leave or you're going to fight back and take matters into your own hands," she said.

For Laura Perry's committee, the decision to take on the Greenmount Avenue recreation center seemed to be a good start.

At the time the center had one staff member -- director Edward Banks -- to run the two-story center. And it wasn't very inviting for the community's children.

"It looks like a prison," said Perry, who convinced the city to rebuild the facade next year to include a mural to be designed by neighborhood children.

"It had been used as a Narcotics Anonymous meeting place. It was not child-friendly. You would see a large crowd of adults, drug addicts coming out and -- in some cases -- shooting up."

After Perry met with recreation officials to complain about understaffing, the city sent a second recreation leader to work at the center. And in September, Perry and her committee got two students from Hopkins to begin tutoring the children and start some new sports programs.

Manuj Singhal, 19, a biomedical engineering sophomore from Texas, and Vivek Baluja, 19, a computer science and biology junior from Colorado, have been spending six to eight hours a week at the center since September.

Their enthusiasm for community service comes naturally to them as they work and play with children who come to the center after school. They're particularly impressed with Perry's drive to revive the center. She sometimes chauffeurs them to the center and gives them taxi vouchers to make sure they show up. "She's so cool," Singhal said.

On a recent visit to the center, they played with a group of nine children that included 10-year-old cousins Nicquetta Alleyne and Candice Forde, who come to the center almost every day and are enjoying the extra attention they get from the Hopkins students.

The cheerful girls view their East Baltimore Midway community much differently from Perry.

"It's a neighborhood full of people. It's fun," Nicquetta said. "We got a rec center here and a playground across the street."

As the cousins leave for the day, a man named Wayne Cole arrives to coach basketball. Cole, a city housing inspector, grew up in the community and moved to Northwood a few miles away.

But for the past 10 years, Cole and his brother have been returning to coach basketball and pay the league fees the boys can't afford.

When told of Laura Perry's interest in the center, he said it makes perfect sense.

"How can you live in affluence and drive through blight and feel good about it?" he said.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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