Pen Lucy resident's fight against decline

Activist: A longtime community leader, Gussie Tweedy has become a local celebrity because of her revitalization efforts.

June 17, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The city air is as hot, thick and humid as a wet wool blanket, but everything's cool on Gussie Tweedy's tree-shaded East 42nd Street front porch.

She sits and talks and waves to passers-by, a lovely, round-faced woman of 68 with a ready smile that's wild raspberry-sweet, and short, iron-gray hair that suits her more serious, sharper side.

Kids pass, and she calls their names. Everybody says "hi." Young women going to work, fathers on their way to pick up their kids at school, a few older people braving the heat, teen-agers -- everybody knows her.

She's been living in this neighborhood for the better part of 50 years with only a brief hiatus or two. She's been an activist and community leader almost since she moved in.

"I love this neighborhood," she says. "I love Northeast Baltimore. I love my street. I love my community."

"And I love you, Miss Gussie," her next-door neighbor, Angela Inter, calls as she gets into her car.

Miss Gussie's neighborhood is called Pen Lucy, and she's a local celebrity. Her turf ranges, roughly, from Waverly to Govans, along Greenmount Avenue, York Road and Old York Road. But she's well-known all over the city.

She managed the old Sam's Belly Food Co-Op on 31st Street at the south end of her neighborhood. She was an intake person at the Govans Mayor's Station, at 5225 York Road, on the north.

"I see her as the grandmother of the peace and justice movement," says Max Obuszewski, an American Friends Service Committee staffer who used to do the books at the "Belly."

"Everybody should have a grandmother like her," he says, "an activist grandmother willing to speak out for all, especially the downtrodden.

"People enjoyed going in the Belly on Saturday, chatting with her and getting a pearl of wisdom with their bagel."

Tweedy's been president of the Pen Lucy Community Association twice, ending her second term at the beginning of this year.

Unhappily, her swath of turf is also the turf of the so-called Old York and Cator Boys, who have made the 4000 block of Old York Road a notorious street market for crack cocaine. Even people who live in Pen Lucy speed through that block, Tweedy says.

"People who don't live here," she says, "they'll be flying."

Change sneaks up on you, she says, when she talks about the stretch of Old York Road just two blocks away.

"It's slowly changing, and you think that's just a little bit of change and we don't worry about it.

"Ten years later, it hasn't gotten any better, and it's still going downhill, but you don't believe it's going that far downhill. You figure it's going to stop right there. Thirty years later, and it has sometimes gone further than you want it to."

When she was last president of the community association, she helped to negotiate a $100,000 grant for rehabilitation of a defunct coin laundry on Old York Road at Rosehill Terrace, a block below Cator. Now, she wants to see the association raise the matching funds to get the job done. She hates boarded-up buildings.

"If you have boarded-up buildings," she says, "that creates a mind-set about what the community is. People become embarrassed about their own neighborhood. And when you become embarrassed and put your neighborhood down, everybody else will join in and help you."

Tweedy's unembarrassed about her neighborhood. She's as eager as a suburban real estate agent when she shows off fine and well-kept streets she wants people to see in Pen Lucy: 41st Street, Argonne Drive, Wyanoke Avenue.

"The neighborhood is beautiful," she declares.

She lives on the corner of 42nd Street and Old York Road in a big old frame house that belonged to the old Boundary Methodist Church.

Once at the city's northern boundary, East 42nd Street is one block long, with the church and a half-dozen or so single-family homes and lots of trees and flowers, a street that could easily have come out of a full-color "Pleasantville."

Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church is catty-corner from Tweedy's front porch, a grand old gray stone building, neat and clean as a starched altar cloth. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. went to parochial school there, and he was married in the church.

Tweedy worked in several of Curran's political campaigns. She worked for his brother, Martin E. "Mike," the councilman who died in April, and their father, J. Joseph Curran Sr., also a councilman and patriarch of the family.

Curran remembers her work when he ran for state Senate and for Congress in the early '70s. "A wonderfully nice lady," he says.

Tweedy's introduction to community work occurred when the first of her seven children started at Guilford School. They're in their late 40s now. But she was still going to Guilford with her granddaughter Tenisha until the 10-year-old transferred to the Stadium School this year.

"I guess I've been active since I started going to those PTA meetings," Tweedy says and laughs. "That I hated."

But she went to them for years and years.

"And, oh Lord," she sighs, "if you can go to PTA meetings, you can go anywhere."

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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