Making a calculated bet on the city

Grants: The Open Society Institute awards funding to 10 residents to help enrich lives and transform neighborhoods.

October 28, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A couple of miles west of downtown, on an untended lot surrounded by dilapidated homes and long-vacant businesses, sits an assortment of paint and brushes. They're the elements of Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen's hypothesis: Art can save a neighborhood.

Some might scoff that painting a mural on the side of a building in West Baltimore's Midtown-Edmondson neighborhood is naive -- that bright colors won't stop the entrenched drug trade or end the poverty. But idealistic is how Cohen prefers to see it, a lopsided fight worth fighting.

"If we can do this, what will happen?" he asks. "All I can do is try."

The George Soros-financed Open Society Institute is banking he's right. The institute, which has bestowed the grants annually for seven years, chose this year to award the $48,000 gifts to Cohen's and nine other projects to help Baltimore's needy. Winners, to be announced at a ceremony today, include teaching disadvantaged elementary school girls how to dance and helping Hispanic women understand their labor rights to making the city's health clinics easier for people to find.

"We need to be pushing the frontier because we know that what exists in Baltimore is not enough," says OSI-Baltimore Director Diana Morris. "We're taking some calculated bets that these people have the skills, the talent, the energy, the zeal to pull it off and bring the community along with them."

With her grant, Nancy Lewin wants to make the city's health clinics more visible and more comfortable.

They are easy to miss, in nondescript, institutional buildings, she says. On the inside, she wants to make the clinics easier to navigate and give them more attractive waiting rooms, with information for people to browse while they wait.

"It's incumbent on us to open the door to health care for the most vulnerable people," Lewin, 33, says. "And folks are having a hard time finding those doors they need to walk through."

Maria Broom's project involves introducing third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls to international dancing.

By having the girls learn samba and salsa, hear music from India and Hawaii, and wear long sarongs, Broom wants to show them a world different from the one they know.

While doing so, the performance artist hopes to teach them much more than dance steps. The girls from Belmont and Garrett Heights elementary schools will learn about taking care of their bodies and how to work with other people.

"You actually might make an uplift in these girls' lives," Broom, 55, says. "And it then might affect the community."

In Midtown-Edmondson, Cohen believes an injection of art can galvanize the depressed area. First he's trying to draw in people from the neighborhood to work on the mural, brightening a spot in the 2000 block of Edmondson Ave.

Next, he wants to help the community buy some of the vacant area properties. They'll renovate them with flourishes such as African-inspired tiling on the facades, and perhaps more murals inside. The goal is to sell them to low-income buyers, ultimately turning the neighborhood around, bit by bit.

Cohen, 50, is an artist whose paintings and stained-glass installations decorate high-end locations -- his portrait of President Bill Clinton with a saxophone hung in the White House.

"Right here, we're in the mix," says Gloria Ross, a longtime neighborhood resident who is helping to paint the mural.

Cohen's mural is slowly going up on the side of a liquor and food market.

Anne Branch, 82, contributed the design, her take on the African-American experience. It's heavy on symbolism, including a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with people looking up at the sky as angels look down at them.

A dove swoops through, because, Branch says, "a dove coming to them brings them peace, because, eventually, it wears off, the sadness, year by year."

Branch, who has lived in Midtown-Edmondson since 1949, knows about sadness and pain that takes years to wear off. Her only son was fatally shot in 1993, up the street from where she is now painting the mural. He was 26.

Ross, who at 56 is something of a mother figure for the neighborhood, hopes Cohen's mural will give the young people something to do -- if not inspire them. "Most of our kids are angry. They're mad at the world," she said.

Ross believes that anything that might redirect that negativity -- even painting -- is something worth trying. "Any kind of way I can get 'em," she likes to say.

And she thinks the mural might get them. She sees that in the way the kids, the same ones who vandalize buildings on the block, have a hands-off policy when it comes to the mural.

"And it's not because the police would be called on them," Ross says. "It's because they took the time to paint a flower. They own it."

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