Community gardeners reap award for service

`They all have a love for the city,' senator says of honorees

January 09, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

In the 2200 block of Riggs Ave., a dead-end street that abruptly ends at an industrial yard clogged with trailers, the seasons are as distinct as on a patch of Frederick County farmland.

Spring arrives when the magnolias bloom. Summer is marked by black-eyed Susans. Autumn brings rich harvests of collard greens, watermelon and string beans.

And during the dark months of winter, a tough season on this block, it's time to wait impatiently for spring again.

Since 1994, the Bridgeview Beautification Garden, on an empty lot at the end of the block, has been cherished by the West Baltimore neighborhood as a bold statement against urban blight and as a source of community pride.

Residents give thanks to two farmers' daughters, Virginia Ewell, 76, and Katherine Wair, 88, for bringing a bit of the countryside into their world.

"It was a dirty place where people would come and park cars," said Ewell.

But season after season of pulling weeds, clearing trash and asking for donations of flowers and plants has changed the dirty lot -- and the neighborhood.

"People come from all around to see it," said Harold Horton, who has lived on Riggs Avenue for 27 years.

Wair and Ewell were two of 31 city residents honored yesterday as "unsung heroes" by state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes during a ceremony at Coppin State College. Others recognized for the award, given out since 1996, included an advocate for the homeless, the founder of an alcoholics recovery group and several people devoted to neighborhood cleanup.

The senator and his wife, Mary, organized yesterday's ceremony after soliciting recommendations from civic and religious organizations.

"There are a lot of awards given out. But very often there are a lot of unsung heroes who need recognition," Hughes said. "They all have a love for the city and they are unselfish and not looking for anything in return. Without these individuals, you are not going to have a city worth living in."

A Democrat representing the 40th Legislative District, Hughes said he hopes to hold the event every two years.

Work ethic

Wair and Ewell said they were surprised to learn of the honor.

Wair grew up in Sugarlock, Miss., the seventh of 13 children. She dropped out of school by fourth grade to work on a farm raising cotton, corn, potatoes and beans. She later got a job doing housework.

"I wanted to work. I liked to work," she said.

She married, had six children and in 1955 moved to Baltimore, where she took a job in the Calverton Middle School cafeteria. She loved the job so much, she said, she stayed 17 years.

When some pupils arrived at school without breakfast, she would tell them to see her at lunch.

"I told them, `I'll put enough on your plate. And if you don't have enough, you come back to me,' " she said. Many of those pupils still remember her today, she said.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Ewell was raised in Halifax, Va. Like Wair, she also worked on a farm before moving in 1962 to the house next to Wair's in Bridgeview.

In Baltimore, she raised her four children and ran a carry-out restaurant on Edmondson Avenue for 27 years.

Tending to garden daily

The Bridgeview Neighborhood Association helped establish the garden in 1994 after securing a city improvement grant. But the day-to-day work of keeping the garden thriving belongs to Ewell and Wair.

During the spring and summer, the garden becomes a second home for the pair. At work by 6 a.m., they spend much of the day tending to the flowers, trees and plants.

"Sometimes they have to call me to tell her to come in the house," said Bernice Wair Evans of her mother.

`Fighting a war'

The garden has helped improve Bridgeview, but Wair said her neighborhood has changed. "When we first moved here, the people were so nice. They all moved out. Now, sometimes it's like you are fighting a war. There's bad language on the corner," she said.

But the community has always come together in times of need, she said. Ten years ago, a mountain of tires, owned by Emanuel Tire Co., rose from an industrial yard at the end of Riggs Avenue. Afraid that the pile could easily catch fire, residents fought to have the tires removed. They won.

Nowadays the residents, most of them retirees, have come together again to keep watch over each other. In the mornings, they sweep the street together. If they see a stranger walk up to a neighbor's house, they call to make sure everything is OK.

And if there is not any gardening to do, they talk about what Ewell and Wair might plant when spring arrives.


Those honored with Community Service Awards in the 40th Legislative District yesterday: Sandra Mae Almond, Mondawmin Improvement Association

Earl Arnett, editor, Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council newsletter

Sadie Alma Askew, Evergreen Neighborhood Association

Dorothy Booze, Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council

Claude Bradford, retired Boy Scout volunteer

Roger Brown, Better Waverly Board of Directors

James T. Cannady, neighborhood cleanup volunteer, Reservoir Hill

Shirley D. Chapman, Woodbrook Association

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