Uncommon garden blooms in city

Community hails commons, an oasis in a troubled neighborhood

September 18, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

A blue-painted steel sign, carved with cut-out angels and a giant yellow sunflower on its top, frames a flower garden in a corner once called a trash triangle. Planted in clean lines, flowers spell out the word "LOVE" on an adjoining lawn where decayed rowhouses once stood.

The new azure sign and an artistic red metalwork fence frame an oasis that has blossomed over several years in East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood - a contrast to the drug troubles and violence on nearby streets.

"All the images are things that you all in the community and the children designed," JL Stewart Watson, the sign's artist, told about 125 people who gathered yesterday for the annual Amazing Port Street Sacred Commons celebration. "I just translated it into metal. There is more to come."

For more than six years, members of Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church and the McElderry Park Community Association have partnered to build the commons - a sanctuary on a once-neglected strip off McElderry Street. They've fashioned a meditation labyrinth out of stones, and planted vegetable gardens and grass in narrow Port Street, once littered with broken glass and trash.

"Every year, there's something new and we like to celebrate that," said the Rev. Karen L. Brau, the church's pastor since 1996. "There is beauty under here - we're just bringing it forth."

The artist's sign and fence, and the open field of grass were the latest additions of beauty for residents and churchgoers, who, in the shade of a white tent, began the day with a spirited outdoor service.

"This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long," the racially diverse congregation sang after receiving Communion.

After the service, they feasted on a picnic of chili, hot dogs, coleslaw and watermelon. Children occupied themselves with arts and crafts. The Dunbar Jazz Band kept the rhythm moving.

You don't have to travel far for evidence of despair in the neighborhood. A shrine for a recent murder victim - decorated with heart-shaped Mylar balloons and a "No More Killing Black Men" sign - still stands on neighboring North Montford Avenue. Numerous rowhouses stand boarded and vacant.

A neglected building on Montford is becoming a community center - the Tudor Building, named for William and Mildred Tudor, who donated it to McElderry Park - is scheduled to open by December.

"There's a great deal of optimism," said Ernest Smith, president of the McElderry Park Community Association. "We're looking at this building being that focal point" of an area-wide plan.

Redevelopment and rising prices associated with the Hopkins Biotech Project for the area north of the nearby Johns Hopkins medical complex threaten to push out renters, particularly the elderly. Virginia Sherman, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, worries about those having to leave.

"The community is changing to include more prominent members, but it's pulling the carpet out from under some people who have been here forever," said Sherman, 40, an art teacher at the east side's Commodore John Rodgers Elementary. "We have to look at what can be affordable for those who want to stay."

Angela Ellis, who built a life in McElderry Park after moving from Jamaica to Baltimore in 1976, is one who has left - but by choice - after witnessing a neighborhood shooting on her way to work six years ago.

"At that point, I realized that safety is an issue," said Ellis, who now lives in Carroll County. "The whole neighborhood had declined."

Still, Ellis' heart never left her beleaguered community. Amazing Grace remains her spiritual home.

Reggie Price, who describes himself as a former drug dealer and user who has been clean for 13 years, has found a vocation through the church. He works in a ministry at Morgan State University and coordinates a 12-step worship service at Amazing Grace. Efforts like the Port Street project need more funds to chip away at drug-related deaths, teen pregnancy and unemployment, he said.

"Until the broader community starts investing in our young people, we're going to continue to have these problems," said Price, 50, born and raised in McElderry Park. "This problem isn't this community, but Baltimore in general. Those that have resources need to bring those resources in."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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