Fixing broken windows and spirits is possible even where hopelessness dwells

November 02, 1997|By Sara Engram

EVEN IN neighborhoods ravaged by the drug trade and hard times, there are remnants of community. Not everyone can pick up and move when times get tough.

But how do neighborhoods bring back the spirit that makes a difference between a block of strangers living side by side and a community that takes pride in its appearance, watches out for its people and becomes an anchor against instability and the erosion of values, both financial and human?

''We were communities for many years till drugs pulled us apart,'' says Beverly Thomas, a long-time leader in her Park Heights community. ''We're having to bring people back together.''

Fueled by those concerns, Ms. Thomas is one of a growing number of community-based fans of Civic Works, a program for young people modeled on the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. You may have seen these red-shirted young people gathering in front of City Hall at 7: 30 a.m. for calisthenics.

And in many parts of Baltimore, you can see teams arriving in their bright red vans and emerging with weed-whackers, hoes, mowers, brooms and other clean-up equipment -- ready to brighten another block with these simple tools and some old-fashioned hard work.

Their work becomes a vital part of what Ms. Thomas describes as knitting back the spirit of damaged communities, neighborhoods where people have become so beaten down that they give up hope.

John Ciekot, a Civic Works staff member, notes that the energy and enthusiasm of young people can bring a new outlook to struggling communities: ''A neighborhood can become depressed, build a crusty shell and bury its head. The kids come along, and they can drive a wedge into that crusty shell and get a response.''

This ''wedge'' effect was on view one bright morning last week at a boarded-up house in Park Heights. Six young people were busy clearing the trash and overgrowth from the front yard. As the weeds disappeared, team leader Diane Wheaton called the young people together to discuss their work.

The original plan had called for cutting down a dying, limbless tree damaged by the same fire that had made the house uninhabitable. But Ms. Wheaton, a former costume designer, couldn't resist an opportunity for something a little more creative.

"How about a totem pole?" she asked.

The team members liked the idea.

Earlier, they had decided to paint the boards covering the windows and doors with a colorful, repetitive design. To that end, Ms. Wheaton had borrowed a member of another Civic Works team for the day, a young man known for his artistic skills, to design the pattern.

Like other Civic Works teams, this one represented a mixture of male and female and various educational levels and aspirations. Their ages ranged from 19 to 24, and most of them were eager to participate so they could qualify for the educational award after their year of service.

Civic Works is affiliated with AmeriCorps, the national service program, and after their year of service its participants qualify for a $4,725 scholarship.

That money will allow many of these young people to pursue educational goals that would otherwise be out of reach. More important are the intangible benefits they will get from their year of teamwork.

There are plenty of concrete skills -- learning how to use power tools and other equipment, how to get a Dumpster delivered to a site, where to call to get services from the city, how to survey a block to determine what it needs and how best to mobilize the residents to take care of the small gardens or parks the teams can create on vacant lots.

But just as important is the boost in confidence that success can bring. As Ms. Wheaton says, team members finishing a project almost always come out with a new attitude: ''They say, 'If I could brick over this vacant lot and get people to take care of it, what else could I do? I could go to college, I could run my own business. . . .' ''

As more young people complete the Civic Works program -- 40 finished in August -- more of them are pursuing goals they would never have dreamed of before. Even better, they are leaving behind a lot of beautified spots that are providing the spark that Ms. Thomas and other community members are eager to nurture as once-blighted neighborhoods bloom again.

Civic Works has earned the support of people like Ms. Thomas, not by putting them on the payroll, but by improving their communities, vacant lot by vacant lot. As she says, ''Greenery is important for people who need hope.''

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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