From eyesores to gardens

Vacant lots: As houses are torn down, imagination is needed to keep empty spaces attractive.

July 23, 2000


Consider Duncan Street Garden, a block-long oasis on the south side of East North Avenue, between Collington Avenue and Chester Street. The fruit and vegetable garden has existed 11 years, tended by retired men trying to make ends meet in an area where median family income is $15,865.

Duncan Street Garden is exceptional. A majority of Baltimore's more than 14,000 vacant lots are neither productive nor pleasing to the eye. Far too many have become dumps overgrown with weeds or nests for druggies.

A new study by the Parks & People Foundation urges City Hall to become more aggressive in seeking productive uses for the vacant lots. We agree: Without imagination and official coordination, there is little hope that these eyesores will be eliminated.

Parks & People surveyed what other cities have done. It also includes four Baltimore case studies, all from rundown areas.

Common to the local examples is their fragility. Even the Duncan Street Garden, cited as the most successful gardening effort in the city, is teetering. The reason is that no younger gardeners have emerged to take over when members of the aging core group become incapacitated or die.

The three other documented cases demonstrate a wider problem: Initial enthusiasm for a community-controlled vacant lot soon wanes. Whenever that happens, the lot is soon in danger of becoming an untended eyesore.

Many big cities share Baltimore's problem. But none has found a panacea. Philadelphia probably becomes the closest; about 2,000 informal gardens grow on its vacant lots.

Besides gardening, vacant lots can be used for many other constructive purposes. But that requires leadership. If they are not kept tidy, they can add blight to neighborhoods that are already waging a losing battle against deterioration.

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