Volunteers pitch in for east side restoration Workers turn old building into community center

October 14, 1998|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Thomas Acree, a neighbor, is mooring the electrical outlets and wiring the lights. Willie Stewart from New Lebanon Calvary Baptist Church is fixing the plumbing and patching the pipes. And Lucille Gorham's son, Charles Bellon, is hauling trash and painting the stairways.

When it came time to turn the vacant East Molding Republicans Club in East Baltimore into a community center, Gorham didn't plow through the phone book for affordable contractors. Instead, the longtime community activist coaxed family members, friends and neighbors -- a mix of unemployed and day laborers -- into volunteering to fix it up.

She found in them an unsung community resource, which she hopes others tap into. Among the eight-man crew, which has shown up almost daily since August, Gorham has had enough handymen to put in windows, add lights, install bathrooms, replace parts of the decayed floor and perform other maintenance jobs at the decaying two-story building in the 1100 block of Rutland Avenue.

"These people are often overlooked when we talk about developing and rehabbing buildings, because they don't have licenses or they have other problems," Gorham said. "But these are resources in the neighborhoods that should be used."

Gorham said that if other community organizations follow her lead and use their residents for neighborhood projects, they'll find it cheaper than hiring contractors, and it gives the community a sense of pride and ownership.

"A lot of people have had a small piece of this project," Gorham said. "They can be proud of their work, and this neighborhood needs to be proud of itself."

Michael Seipp, director of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC), a nonprofit organization working to rebuild East Baltimore, said community involvement gives people a vested interest in the property. But, he added, coordinating volunteers can be difficult.

Seipp said his organization is using volunteers to clean out a recently acquired building in the 1900 block of Ashland Avenue, to be used for a men's community center. But, he said, contractors will be needed to design and coordinate the renovations. "There has to be a balance," Seipp said. "When you add that key piece, the volunteers operate smoothly "

Gorham, the vice president of HEBCAC, said the still-unnamed community center is expected to open by late November, perhaps in time for a Thanksgiving dinner. The upstairs area will become offices for the Middle East Community Organization, Citizens for Fair Housing and Madison Square Housing Corp.

The downstairs area, Gorham said, will become a pantry, a youth activity center and a meeting place for neighborhood organizations.

Gorham said the former Republican club building, which has not been used since 1991, needed a lot of work when the three organizations acquired it in August for $35,000, after their building at 1004 North Caroline St. was closed because of housing violations. Most of the money for the project came from fund-raisers and donations.

Bellon, 46, who has been fixing the bar and painting the stairways, said that when workers first walked into the building, it was cluttered with trash, the basement was flooded and the floor behind the bar was decaying from years of leaky pipes.

"You don't know how bad it is until you start tearing up and looking," he said, pointing to the exposed floor beams behind the bar.

Gorham said she doesn't know what kind of repairs the heating system needs, so she might hire a contractor to do that and a few other jobs.

Some remnants of the social club, such as the bar, stools, jukebox and mirror-plated columns, will remain. "For historical reasons, we'll leave them, and they make good conversation pieces," Gorham said.

The volunteers said they are helping because they care about the community and want to do some good. "I walked by one day and saw some things that needed to be done, so I thought I'd help," said Robert Mickey, 40, who patched holes in the wall and fixed the leaky roof.

Acree, 48, who has been doing the electrical work, said he offered his services in gratitude for Gorham's help when he was laid off four years ago. "Miss Lucille looked out for me, so this is just something to return to her," Acree said.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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