In a display of sweet defiance, flowers hold their ground

Baltimore ... Or Less

September 19, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It's the time of year when, no matter how often or early Joseph and Lillian Lawson rise to water and feed them, the annual petunias that brighten a dreary strip of a Baltimore street begin their slow droop toward death.

For neighbors on the block-long stretch of Greenmount Avenue between Biddle and Chase streets, it means the end of another season's display of beauty, pride and defiance against the decay and troubles around them.

Petunias - purple, lavender, hot pink, white, red - spill from a yellow pot the Lawsons fashioned, in true Baltimore style, from an old tire. Down the street, Sophie Turner, 71, faithfully tends the leafy plants she bought at the downtown farmer's market, a welcome job after years of working the assembly line at the Sweetheart Cup factory in Owings Mills. Last year, the plants thrived into the fall, their green, brown, and burgundy leaves blending well with the change of seasons.

They defied their surroundings. For while three of the 13 houses on the east side of the street wear their annuals proudly, six others are vacant and boarded up. The Baltimore prison complex looms just a few blocks south.

But once or twice a week in summer, someone zipping along this fast-moving stretch of Greenmount - cutting through the city from Towson or North Baltimore to get to a job downtown - will be moved enough by the site to park, get out and compliment the gardeners. One admirer brought garden ornaments; Lawson, 71, got a red cardinal that now adorns her doorway, matching the barn-red paint of her rowhouse.

Sister John Francis Schilling, principal of St. Frances Academy nearby, is one of those whose days are brightened by the blooms. The flowers seem livelier, more colorful amid their dreary surroundings. "It says something about people being happy to be there," she says. "It's like new life."

Lillian Lawson recalls that former city mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer - a sharp observer of those who created urban beauty (or blight) - has told people to check out the display.

"I put these flowers out here for the people who admire them, and that's what they do," Lawson says.

Her husband, a 74-year-old retired steelworker, waters the flowers faithfully, then often sits on the steps to admire them himself. On summer evenings, the couple might sit until nearly midnight; that's when the flowers become most alive, after the heat of the day has passed.

Lillian Lawson figures she started the petunia tradition about 15 years ago. She was cleaning the street as usual one day, lamenting the trash and trouble, when a song that her mother used to sing came back to her: "Brighten up the corner where you are."

On a trip to Pennsylvania, she found a market that sold petunias. They popped from the roadside in every color she could imagine.

Now, picking out the flowers is a ritual of spring. Every year shortly before Mother's Day, Lawson, her neighbor and Lawson's daughter drive up I-83 to Route 30, until they spot that roadside market in bloom.

While the flowers are out, as she walks the block in her pink housecoat wielding a broom and a dustpan, Lawson prays. She prays not just for her husband, her children, and her neighborhood. She prays for the flowers - that nothing and no one will do them harm.

Usually, no one does. Once, Lawson looked out a window and saw a woman with a shopping bag pulling up the petunias by the roots; another time, two pots she'd put out while her husband was in the hospital disappeared. And once vandals came through and damaged the flowers all along the block.

But mostly, people leave them alone - even the drug addicts and dealers who walk by. Or just enjoy them - sometimes much longer than nature usually says they should.

"Last year, I had them until November," Lawson said. "I just said: `God did it.' "

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