Essay contest a chance to return home

Winners receive money for payments on houses in the city that they love

March 05, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

For 24-year-old Erica Jones, winning an essay contest on the dream of homeownership yesterday was worth more than Mayor Martin O'Malley's recognition and the $5,000 first prize. It also opened a door for the single mother to make a down payment and move back into a Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up.

A home of her own in the city will complete a circle back to the city's west side, a place she remembers as filled with ice cream trucks, a penny candy store on the corner and softball games on Saturday. Jones' nostalgic essay was chosen from a field of 275 in a contest sponsored by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit group that promotes city neighborhoods and homeownership.

The subject entrants were asked to write about was "What Owning a Home in Baltimore City Means to Me." So Jones, who grew up on the close-knit streets of Reservoir Hill and Sandtown until her mother died, wrote about moving to Baltimore County when she was 15. It was there, she wrote, that she felt no sense of neighborliness or belonging.

Chosen as second- and third-place winners were Jennifer Plum and Sandra B. Clay. Both received $3,000 that will be used for a down payment or closing costs on buying a home in Baltimore.

O'Malley congratulated each winning essayist personally yesterday at a news conference at the new Live Baltimore office on North Charles Street. The mayor and others were visibly touched when Jones' essay was read. It was her first effort at writing, she said.

Her essay conjured up visions of a neighborhood where people sat on the steps in warm weather "from the time you awoke in the morning until it was time for you to go to bed at night. ... But as time passed on, people did, too."

Jones, a data management coordinator at the University of Maryland, wrote that as a teen, she and her sister moved to live with her grandparents in the county - but the environs never felt as friendly.

"The holidays would come and go with no block party," she wrote. "They never even decorated."

Her Baltimore neighborhood changed while she was away, Jones noted, with an increase in drugs and crime along with a drop in the number of block parties. But in her essay she voiced a determination to bring back the past: "There is nothing like living in Baltimore city and there is nothing like neighborly love. ... If we don't take our neighborhoods back, NO ONE WILL."

Plum, 27, an editor who lives in Timonium, said she and her fiance look forward to putting down roots in Baltimore in a "dream house in Evergreen, a shingled single-family home with built-in bookshelves." A transplanted New Yorker, she wrote about how Baltimore's charms beguiled her. Those charms included Irish music, the Washington Monument and pretty rowhomes with bright red bricks, she wrote.

Clay, 54, a full-time graduate student at the University of Baltimore, grew up on the west side. Like Jones, she described cozy features like the corner hardware store and block parties.

Like the other two writers, Clay wrote a simple ode to the city she loves. "Life can throw some pretty imposing obstacles to realizing your dream," she wrote. "For me, Baltimore has no equal."

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