Volunteers spruce up neighborhood

100 people help nonprofit with cleaning, planting in Barclay-Greenmount

November 02, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

After a dusty morning cleaning up an abandoned rowhouse strewn with syringes and other refuse left behind by drug dealers, Ben Pula came to a startling conclusion.

"These houses were beautiful, with oak banisters under five layers of paint," the hard-hatted Park School junior said. The 16-year-old is studying poverty in America, and yesterday's work underlined a lesson for him: "Block by block is the only way we can do this."

Pula was one of scores of volunteers who came to work in East Baltimore's Barclay-Greenmount neighborhood, where cleaning and greening were the watchwords.

Roses, hydrangeas, wetland plants and grasses transformed a vacant lot into a new "rain garden" at East 20th and Barclay streets during the People's Homesteading Group's annual Workathon. The garden will help absorb storm runoff and help beautify the neighborhood.

Nearby, 22 young trees -- red maples, honey locusts and sycamores -- were hoisted into empty tree pits -- the dirt-filled squares that dot city sidewalks -- as residents watched from their marble steps in Indian summer weather.

Finally, in a step considered essential for restoring the troubled neighborhood's health, several rowhouses in the 400 block of E. 22nd St. were aired and cleaned of debris -- indoors and out.

About 100 volunteers, many of them high school students at Park, Friends and McDonogh schools, pitched in help the nonprofit housing group launch a project that is to eventually rehabilitate 22 houses on East 22nd Street to create a concentrated area of urban improvement.

It's a new approach for the group, which previously renovated individual houses scattered across the city.

The Barclay-Greenmount neighborhood, just east of the city school system's North Avenue headquarters, has seen better days, said Anthony Covington, 40.

A lifelong resident who remembers a more vibrant place 25 years ago when all the houses were occupied, Covington said the street-level gardens, young trees and small flower pots sprucing up the scene are positive signs. "It's definitely more cheerful and bright, and we'll have more shade next summer," Covington said. "The inner city needs more trees and a reason to keep it clean, keep it up. And children will grow up to take care of their neighborhood."

The Parks and People Foundation, another Baltimore nonprofit group, also was on hand to direct a "greening strategy," a term for neighborhood beautification.

Guy W. Hager, the program director, said a recent survey of the neighborhood's 230 trees -- or the "green infrastructure," as he put it -- showed that only 15 percent were in good health, a number he called "shocking." The study also showed that 188 tree pits were empty -- a deficiency that yesterday's 22 plantings helped remedy.

Ann Wood, Antoinette Harrison and Michael Partlow, community residents who are mobilizing neighbors to participate in the reclamation project, describe themselves as stewards of the grass-roots effort.

"Everybody's blending in, neighbors are cleaning more," Partlow said, after a hard morning's work.

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