Red tulips pep up a gray city street

Edmondson Ave., a gateway to Baltimore through a struggling area, is in blossom


The light the police installed atop the pole on the corner flashes a blue warning all day and all night, so constant it has become part of the landscape. The scrubby grass that carpets everyone's front yard isn't mustering much in the way of green.

And the long stretch of highway that leads into the city? Miles of relentless gray.

But the little surprise in the middle is something else entirely.

Pure, saturated, voluptuous red.

For the past few weeks along Edmondson Avenue on the west side of the city, beds of conspicuous crimson tulips have put on a show for commuters and lifted the spirits of more than a few residents.

It's not so much the flowers themselves - the little clusters have nothing on the posh spreads in Baltimore's high-rent districts.

It's that they're even there at all.

Donna Parker, who lives along Edmondson, considers them from the side of the street.

"It brings out the city, you know," she says. "Ain't too much you can do with the city. But it helps."

Government dollars buy the blooms, part of a city initiative begun a few years ago to put a better face on Baltimore's many entryways, including President Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Though crews dug the beds in Edmondson Village a few years ago, the flowers might be turning more heads now because of wooden borders that horticulturist Bill Vondrasek and his team installed last fall to better define the display.

With the help of the ex-offenders and the at-risk young people he hires, Vondrasek plants flowers across the city, carefully considering every site to make sure that what he drops there will survive.

Along Edmondson, it isn't easy.

Sometimes there, when the lights turn red and the eternal traffic parade shushes for a second, it's peaceful enough to hear air whiz through the spokes of a bicycle's wheel as a boy pedals past, or the soft scrape of paper being pushed across the concrete by a low breeze.

Then the light changes, reviving the honking blare, the exhaust fumes, the urban beats that spill from rolled-down car windows.

"It's a really rough street," Vondrasek says. "Hot. Polluted. Lots of traffic."

He calls his flowers "a juxtaposition to the concrete of the city."

And how he works to extract that contrast.

This pavement swallows the subtle. Meek, mild-mannered blooms might as well be invisible.

"In places like Edmondson, I will plant the brightest, brightest, brightest yellows, oranges, reds and hot pinks," he says.

"If you put in a regular pink or a white, they tend to look gray."

The lusty red tulips he chose for this stretch of Baltimore hail from Holland and boast a French name: Avignon.

Avignon, an ancient town in the south of France, is known for its lush gardens.

The tulips' new home has a much sadder reputation, with drugs and crime that persist despite people's best efforts to improve the neighborhood.

Only days ago, just blocks from the most vibrant of the series of beds, someone shot a father throwing a "sweet 16" party for his daughter.

The Rev. Edward Miller, longtime leader of St. Bernardine's Church, responds with a touch of impatience when asked about the effect the flowers might have on the neighborhood.

"It's gonna take a whole lot more than a bunch of tulips," he says dryly.

"You got people working to improve stuff and factors fighting them. It's yin and yang.

"But anything that beautifies is nice. As they say, it's all good."

Kirk Monroe, a social studies teacher on disability who walks the street to exercise his bad back, sees it differently.

"You look at them," he says, "and you see people are good."

These tulips won't last. In just a few weeks, Vondrasek and his kids will be back to pull up the exhausted bulbs.

But he has plans for their replacements, something sturdy and stubborn to make it through summer's heat.

Red lantana, he thinks, with maybe a touch of ornamental grass to catch the breeze.

Sometimes Vondrasek wishes that he could stand on a corner and talk to the people walking by, ask them whether they notice the flowers.

He likes to think they do.

He should talk to Ricky Smith.

The 52-year-old, in the neighborhood as part of a construction crew renovating one of the houses along the avenue, stood outside yesterday, sweating in the midday sun and admiring one of the littlest beds.

It's looking good, he says - would look even better if people stopped throwing trash. It makes spring feel real for him.

"Driving by, it makes you feel good looking at something like that," he says. "It opens your heart, to see something different here."

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