A reason to stop

Editorial Notebook

July 17, 2004|By Ann LoLordo

A SUNFLOWER is trying to grow on North Wolfe Street.

Sprouting from two pots in front of an East Baltimore rowhouse, the spindly stalks offer no blooms. But there is a determined optimism here. The resident gardener in the 900 block of N. Wolfe St. has surrounded the pots with enough artificial varieties of the yellow-rayed helianthus to will a blossom or two. She has gathered a profusion of found objects in that egg yolk shade to convince the skeptics that a field of sunflowers could rise here.

Hers is an urban landscape, a nod to Van Gogh and Stewart (Marvelous Martha, that is) unseen in the nearby blocks of blight and boarded-up houses that lead to Johns Hopkins Hospital. From the sunflower-yellow glider with the plump canary-yellow cushions wedged under her front window to the bathtub ducks swimming on the sill above, the tableau is a head-turner that invites closer inspection of the yellow pails, buckets, watering cans, birdhouses, smiley face, marigolds and, of course, sunflowers that abound.

And once you've stopped to admire the whimsy, you might have occasion to meet Lottie Chapman, who lives a few doors down. Mrs. Chapman prefers a simple pot of purple petunias and yellow zinnias in front of her iron steps. Her neighbor's sidewalk art reminds her of the little time she and the others have left in their homes before the block is razed to build a biotechnology complex. The project developers have told the residents they would be most welcome in the new neighborhood that rises here, but that's not a likely option for Mrs. Chapman.

In 10 years, at 97, who would move again? She arrived on Wolfe Street in 1940 as a newlywed, the wife of James Morant, who worked at Bethlehem Steel. "We all had white steps [then]," she says from her sidewalk folding chair. "I scrubbed my steps three times a day. How many times I swept from Ashland Avenue to here. Our pavement was always clean. Everybody had flowers on their steps. "

She raised one son and three stepchildren in her two-bedroom house, buried Mr. Morant and married another steelworker, Eppa Chapman, who sits beside her enjoying the breeze on a cool July afternoon. She's outlived her stepchildren and will most likely outlive this house.

"With me, let me move when I want to," she says proudly.

Ann Imes, a retired cook, is from the next generation of Wolfe Street residents. At 62, she's lived on the block off and on for about 30 years. Over time, steel and concrete steps replaced marble ones, residents moved, houses fell vacant. Looking down the block, she says she understands why her neighbor, Rita Paul, would invest time and energy in the yellow set piece outside her door.

"It makes her happy," Mrs. Imes says.

Framed by boarded-up houses, the sidewalk garden is the shard of shiny glass on a gravel road, last season's tulip breaking through last fall's mulch, a red high heel in a bin of old shoes. It's the reason Steve Park stopped his car on his way to work yesterday morning and got out his camera. Every day he drives North Wolfe Street to his design office in Canton. Every day he takes note of the sunflower house. He appreciates the aesthetic of the outdoor sitting room and marvels at its staying power, untouched in a neighborhood now rundown.

"It's just nice to see someone go to this level of creativity," he says.

He realizes that what's important is what he doesn't see: The Baltimoreans who work every day and return home to the houses still occupied on this block. The kids who go to school every day and sleep soundly in their beds at night. The woman who, despite the odds, is coaxing sunflowers to grow on North Wolfe Street.

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