City tries to salvage community and park

Improvements scheduled for site overtaken by drugs and violence

July 28, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Children at summer camp in Malcolm X Elementary School emerge at 9 a.m. and begin their 30-second dash into Park Heights' Towanda Park with smiles that say it's recess time.

They bolt to their normal spots with such energy that the few middle-aged stragglers shaking off the previous night's drug binge scurry into nearby overgrown woods.

The men glance back at the apparent chaos, leaving behind a park that reflects the Northwest Baltimore community's decline from middle-class brick rowhouses to streets peppered with crack cocaine and violence.

Two weeks ago, that violence claimed the life of the Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, 73, who was shot outside his Quantico Avenue home. The blighted park, with its dense brush and gap-filled fences, provided an unimpeded escape route for the killer, less than 100 yards from Gamble's home.

City officials hope a $275,000 renovation of Towanda Park and its Police Athletic League center can restore the park's luster, spur more revival in Park Heights, and make residents feel comfortable sending their children there again.

Part of a $10 million citywide effort to renovate most city parks over four years, the Towanda Park money will provide new playground equipment, athletic fields, a new basketball court, lighting, pathways and fences, said Michael J. Baker, the city's chief of parks. Baker said a $200,000 grant from the state's Open Space program is financing the bulk of the project, with the remaining $75,000 coming from the city.

"Basically, the grant money is sitting there, and we gave [the Police Athletic League] full permission to do whatever they want," Baker said.

The city Bureau of Parks and Recreation recently turned the park over to PAL, a city-run program that operates 27 centers where youngsters and police interact, but public works is responsible for park maintenance.

Park improvements, which started shortly after Gamble's killing, will continue this week. But until work crews arrive, children and drug users -- who at midday walk around clenching fists full of money in a search for drugs -- control the park. The roughly 12-square block park is littered with drug paraphernalia, 40-ounce beer bottles and a kaleidoscope of broken glass.

"If you fall, you will probably get poked by a drug needle," said Kevin L. Graves, 9.

Other children have watched the park's decline and can't wait for its rebirth.

"It ain't no park, it's the projects," said Dominick J. Grahm, 11, a participant in the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice "Do the Right Thing" camp. "It just gets messier and messier every year."

Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said city crews regularly clean park grounds -- the last cleanup was Friday -- and repair its equipment.

"We will clean something, and it will be a mess in an hour," Kocher said. "We are not neglecting that park our workers are working in the hot sun and freezing cold day after day."

Police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold said officers are redoubling efforts to deal with the area's crime and drug problem.

Since Gamble's killing July 15, city workers have cleared 600 feet of brush from the strip of woods the killer fled through. City workers also have begun relocating the park's basketball court, and have repaired a fence around the swimming pool.

Despite residents' complaints that recent improvements have been shoddy, public works officials believe the park is on the verge of being a model for urban park renewal.

"We have been making this area much more open and friendly to the people who use this," said Kocher.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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