In the middle of an East Baltimore neighborhood torn by drugs and violence and persistent poverty, there stood yesterday an unlikely new center of peace.
A garden labyrinth, with its curving prayer path echoing those found in French cathedrals, stretched across a city lot once pocked by abandoned rowhouses and trash-filled alleys. Begonias spilled out of nearby flower beds and from a newly built community nursery.
At a dedication ceremony, area leaders called the quiet oasis a hopeful sign of revival. They said it also was an example of what could happen across Baltimore if a city plan to acquire up to 5,000 vacant homes is successful.
"Who would have thought something like this would be back here?" said Shanteria Jones, 23, a McElderry Park resident who worked with one of the nonprofit groups that helped build the labyrinth.
In the empty lots along the 600 block of N. Port St., tucked behind Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church and blocks of sagging, boarded-up buildings, modern-day urban renewal has met the centuries-old path of the labyrinth.
Etched into cathedral floors in the Middle Ages - most notably at the Chartres Cathedral outside Paris - the labyrinth's winding path offered Christians a way to make a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Today, the labyrinth has been revived as a meditative tool at churches, hospitals, resorts and prisons.
Walkers follow the curving paths until they reach the center, where they pray or meditate before finding their way back to the structure's single entrance. There are no dead ends or cul-de-sacs, as in garden mazes. The idea, said the Rev. Lee Schray, a Lutheran minister from Washington, is to instill a sense "that the center will hold."
So it is in McElderry Park, where the labyrinth is part of a broad reclamation effort. Volunteers have planted trees and area artists and schoolchildren turned old telephone poles into colorful totem poles that dot the area dedicated yesterday as "The Sacred Commons."
Glenn L. Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association, said the project has helped heal the area. As the city tore down the abandoned houses and the garden project got under way, the drug dealing and violence that had infected the blocks began to move to other blocks.
Ross said the association is working on seven other sites where it hopes to repeat the success. Israel C. "Izzy" Patoka, director of the city's Office of Neighborhoods, said the project could be a model for the city as it implements a plan by Mayor Martin O'Malley to acquire as many as 5,000 vacant houses.
Many of those properties would be cleared and offered for development or designed as open space. Others would be offered to individuals and nonprofit organizations for rehabilitation.
But Patoka told the small crowd gathered at Amazing Grace Lutheran yesterday: "It really won't fix anything unless things like this happen in each neighborhood."
Those who worked on the $40,000 project said replacing the blighted stretch of vacant homes with a lush garden spot was not easy. The church and community association turned to TKF Foundation of Annapolis for help with funding, to the youth service corps Civic Works Inc. for help building the site, as well as to groups such as Neighborhood Design Center and Parks & People Foundation.
They also relied on hope and on prayer. The Rev. Karen L. Brau, pastor at Amazing Grace, said when the idea for the project first was raised three years ago, a group of children in the church's summer camp built a simple, three-ring labyrinth from stones and bricks.
When it was finished, they had a familiar worry in their crime-ridden neighborhood: Somebody will take it.
"So we stood in a circle around it and we prayed, and it stayed there - all summer and into the fall," said Brau, who saw that first test as proof the labyrinth project would work. "The lesson I learned is there was a power in putting it together."