Spring greening

Editorial Notebook

April 12, 2003

TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, a fire destroyed seven rowhouses in a Butchers Hill alley. As usual, trash dumping began almost immediately.

But in this case, two residents, Charles and Mary Halcott, decided to put a stop to it. They took the eyesore lots and turned them into a lovely park with raised brick planters and pavements, wooden benches and tables.

Today, the city holds the deed to the little oasis of green on Duncan Street, between Lombard and Pratt streets, while the community takes care of it.

It's a popular spot for meetings, celebrations and cookouts. A book club convenes there. The park even has a volunteer superintendent: Russian teacher Steve Young, who lives next door. He tidies up every day without complaint.

All successful open spaces have similar stewards.

At Brentwood Village Elders Garden, the caretakers include more than 15 old-timers. Rain or shine, they gather under a striped green canopy to play dominoes and chess or to just shoot the breeze on a transformed vacant lot at Chase Street and Greenmount Avenue. As the seasons turn, flowers, watermelon, spinach and greens are grown.

"We are like brothers here," says a regular, Joseph Nickens, 75. "Other neighborhoods could do the same thing. It all depends on how human beings feel about one another."

There are perhaps 600 other unofficial parks or gathering places on vacant lots in Baltimore, including 60 community gardens.

But that's a tiny fraction of what there could be, considering that nearly 12,000 private and 5,000 municipally owned vacant lots pockmark the city. And the total grows each time a building is demolished, or destroyed by fire.

"This is a huge opportunity for the city to rethink itself," says Guy W. Hager of Parks & People Foundation, which provides grant money for neighborhood open spaces.

Another organization, Charm City Land Trusts, is in the process of acquiring permanent title to suitable vacant lots. Its goal is to develop a network of green spaces that are covered by a citywide liability insurance policy and can apply for foundation funding.

The result may be a privately financed mesh of green spaces that parallels and complements the city-owned park system. But in order for it to succeed, city officials must embrace this vision.

What does City Hall want the future Baltimore to look like? Are the vacant lots - and crumbling rowhouses that will produce even more vacant lots - a permanent fixture? If not, which areas will be earmarked for redevelopment, and which will not? A comprehensive plan is needed.

Amazingly, no such long-range design map exists, even though Baltimore has lost one-third of its population since 1950.

Up to now, the city has mostly tried to make do with cosmetic solutions. A spring-time clean-up of a problem lot may make inspiring television footage for a slow weekend. But it's a temporary fix unless volunteers agree to assume care of the lot. The same goes for the latest environmentally questionable invention - dumping mulch on vacant lots to hide the debris.

Many other cities have attacked the vacant-lot problem more successfully. Chicago has won accolades for its efforts to increase open space that works; Philadelphia is known for its thriving community gardens.

Baltimore could accomplish the same. All it takes is a systematic plan. And perhaps a healthy case of spring fever.

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