Baltimoreans We're Thankful For in 2001
And so, for the seventh year now, City Paper is setting aside the question of whether we deserve our good things, and focusing instead on the people who make good things happen. The 11 people here--nine individuals and one two-woman team--have been quietly and decisively spreading benefits through this city and region. Each is working to add something to life in Baltimore: more trees, better housing, live jazz, improved schools. It's suddenly simple again. They do the giving; we do the thanks. Although if you want to chip in on their side of the ledger, see page 29 for a list of organizations you can contact to support their efforts.
Bowman's job is promoting positive interaction between teens, their parents or guardians, and the institutions that serve them--schools, churches, community centers. That can mean sponsoring trips to a local bowling alley or a video arcade. It can mean holding intense focus groups where children speak their minds about parents or other authority figures, and vice versa. Always, it means staying on the go.
"It's weird how I got to this point," the 55-year-old Cherry Hill native says. "But I'm a people person." Now retired, the former Social Security Administration "techie" has been active in civic work for more than two decades, including stints with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and Gov. Parris Glendening's Safe and Sound Campaign. Now in her second year with the Family Tree, Bowman says she wants "to help young people achieve and be all they can be."
At St. Ambrose Family Outreach Center, Bowman sits attentively as Kofi Simmons, a 27-year-old Americorps volunteer who mentors kids, talks about life in the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood. "Kids I used to play G.I. Joes with are now selling drugs," Simmons says. As a child, he watched a friend get killed for another kid's want of a gold chain. Mentoring 11- to 18-year-olds today, he says, he sees in them glimpses of his old life, "and it's scary. But I hope I'll make a difference."
Bowman tells Simmons that his efforts to reach back to other young people will bring rewards. "You may not see it now," she says, "but it will happen. Someone will remember you." Then, offering hugs and promising a return visit soon, she is off to her next stop--Edmondson-Westside High School, where 75 kids in the school band, tubas and trumpets rocketing somebody's red glare, march around the parking lot.
"Ms. Bowman makes a big difference with the kids, and me," says Stanley Brown, an Edmondson music teacher for 18 years, for most of which program facilitators such as Bowman didn't exist. "Now, I'm more enthusiastic by having help."
"The best thing is she's able to talk to people but not judge them," Edmondson parent volunteer Cherby Worthington says. "[Bowman] just has a giving nature." Worthington recalls an episode last year when a teenage mom wanted to join the band but lived with an alcoholic parent who could not provide stable child care. Bowman offered to counsel the girl and her addicted mom, then went and bought the young lady Pampers and a diaper bag, things she desperately needed.
It was a small gesture, perhaps, but one in keeping with Bowman's approach to her work. "I believe when I work I'm serving the Lord," she says, back in the Blazer and heading for yet another of her day's missions. "And I know that what I am doing will affect someone in a positive way. It begins with doing the small things."
Built in the early 1920s by locally renowned stonemason Seymour Ruff, who also constructed elegant homes in Guilford and part of the old Baltimore County courthouse, Fieldstone has long been a showcase for stone architecture and 19th-century history. The neighborhood's earliest structure, an 1843 clapboard farmhouse, still stands.
By the fall of 1999, the small enclave in Randallstown began to feel the squeeze of sprawl that had been bearing down on the Liberty Road corridor for years. County plans called for widening the community's main thoroughfare, Church Lane, which would have meant demolishing homes to make way for increased traffic. In addition, developers were considering building a 160-bed assisted living facility and "vinyl-sided shacks" on vacant lots, says Carr-Spiccioli, 30, a market researcher for a health-care firm. This would have "lowered property values," she says, "and altered Fieldstone's special character."
Carr-Spiccioli founded a watchdog group, Historic Fieldstone (which she still chairs), and applied for historic-district status. Members of the Baltimore County Council didn't need to be sold on the community's historic importance; they meet, as Carr-Spiccioli reminded them, in another building that Ruff built, the former courthouse. Getting property owners to agree to a designation that might affect t their ability to make changes to their homes was another matter. So she and other Historic Fieldstone members canvassed the neighborhood, making sure residents understood the county law and the pros and cons of historic-district status. The inclusive, thoroughly researched approach worked; the community collectively agreed to keep out more traffic and homes with incompatible architecture. "The way they went about getting designation was impressive and unusual because, unlike [many neighborhood-preservation groups], they were proactive," says Judith Kremen, past director of the Baltimore County Historic Trust.
Everything was sailing along when Carr-Spiccioli learned in May 2000 that Fieldstone's community center, a 1927 landmark that once housed a virtual main street of businesses, was going to be demolished. Bank of America, which owned the building and operated a branch in it, intended to sell the structure to a developer who wanted put in a 12-pump gas station and convenience store. "This was an out-of-state bank that had no vested interest in this community," Carr-Spiccioli fumes. "It was fine for them to run their business here, but when it no longer suited their needs they had no problem walking away."
Instead of wasting time arguing with Bank of America, Historic Fieldstone applied for landmark status for the community center, temporarily saving it from the wrecking ball. In March 2001, it was declared a bona-fide, hands-off landmark.
The preservation battles have left some scars in the form of disputes and bad feeling among Fieldstone neighbors, but Carr-Spiccioli maintains the sacrifices were worth it. In the past year, she says, five new families moved into Fieldstone because they like living in a historic district. "There is," she says, "a renewed sense of pride here."
"It just depends on what I feel like cooking . . . and what's in the refrigerator," says Keith Covington, owner of the Northeast Baltimore club beloved for keeping the local jazz scene accessible to all in an age when a live show, food, and drinks can set one back a yard. "I don't do this for the money," the 47-year-old proprietor says. "I do this for the love of the art."
That commitment keeps local jazzheads coming to this tiny (1,950 square feet) space in the Northwood Plaza shopping center and has earned the New Haven repeated nods from City Paper as the city's Best Jazz Club.
"He's like a violin--and violins play an important part to the top of the tune that makes the bottom stand out," says Larry Jeter, owner of the downtown CD store Dimensions in Music. "There'd be no melody to the tune without the top notes. Without Keith at the Haven, the whole [jazz scene] would not be there."
Covington traces his love of music to childhood, when he'd sit rapt watching Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. "Man, it was nothing for me to break out back then with, 'Babaaaluuu,'" he laughs. But a child prodigy Covington was not. He took clarinet at school, but one day in sixth grade he left the instrument on the bus. "That was the longest walk home ever," he recalls. "But my parents never said a thing. I guess they were so glad to get that noise out of the house!"
Covington was an automations analyst for the Federal Reserve when his folks bought the New Haven property in 1987, investing to keep the struggling neighborhood club alive, and asked him to take it over. Though he lacked experience in the club business, Covington's love of music won out, and he sought out people on the local music scene to teach him the ropes.
"The first show me and [Covington] did together was Joshua Redman, and that was eight years ago," Jeter says. Knowing which artists have records coming out--and thus might do shows for less money to promote them--Jeter has helped Covington book such jazz and blues luminaries as Antonio Hart, Koko Taylor, Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut, and David "Fathead" Newman, who played the club last month.
With so many big names playing his small place, it's rumored that Covington might branch out--to the Inner Harbor, or to the York Road strip near the Senator Theatre. He won't talk specifics, but does say he "would like to present this product to a larger audience" and is "not opposed to multiple locations." But wherever else the music takes him, Covington vows the New Haven will never become just another commercial joint.
"Never will you hear Kenny G. on this house system," he states flatly. "And that's a house rule."
"Sir, you are going to have to keep your head down and your arms up," Charles Dugger tells the youngster, as nine other Highlandtown Middle School students in Dugger's after-school swimming class practice their handstands and belly flops. A language-arts teacher by day, Dugger frequently stays past the bell to lead classes in extracurricular subjects such as drama or yoga, and on weekends he might take students to a Morgan State football game--all as a volunteer, covering fees, snacks, and any other costs out of his own pocket.
"Our kids are in a system where they get put out [of school] very fast, and they are getting angry because they feel unloved," Dugger says. "I try to take some time, let them see some things, do some things, show them somebody cares."
Typical comments from a humanitarian sort, but Dugger, a 30-year teacher and 1999 mayoral candidate, takes a blunt, almost radical approach to do-gooding. "He's very confrontational and won't back down," a former teaching colleague says. "He just thinks the schools have failed our kids, but the way he goes about it sometimes gets people riled up."
Dugger's voice--usually raised in dissent--is a familiar sound at school-board and City Council meetings. "I walk around the city and see signs that say R.I.P. I want to see signs that say L.I.P--live in peace," he told The Sun during the 1999 race, quoting one of his main campaign slogans (which garnered him lots of press but not many votes).
In a conversation beside the pool, that voice ranges freely from criticism of a society that "builds prisons for children but doesn't want to teach them" to black-nationalist notions in the music of Gil-Scott Heron. If Dugger sometimes sounds militant, it is in the service of his commitment to Baltimore kids. "More of us need to see we can make a difference," he says, "and [admit that] our students just aren't getting what they deserve."
"For as long as I can remember, he's been doing yearly Kwanzaa celebrations here, at least 12 or 13 years," says Theresa Edmonds, a program assistant at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central library. When Dugger interacts with kids "their eyes light up," she says. "He's the type of person who gives from his heart."
And he doesn't give up. As the swim class wraps up, the students jump out of the water to hit the showers and dress. All except the boy in the yellow trunks, who stares solemnly at three feet of water. He waits until there is no one left in the pool except himself and Dugger. He's silent, but his eyes ask loudly.
"All right, son," the teacher says, "we'll try it one more time. You can do this. Now, remember to keep your feet together . . ."
"We've been able to bring to the table people who would not have come to the table otherwise," Ginsburg says. "And," Sims-El chimes in, "we bring a certain spirit with us that people recognize."
The issues to rally around, and the groups to rally, are boundless. In the past three months alone, there have been new developments on a gubernatorial commission's much-anticipated report on education funding, conflicting reports on the efficacy of the state's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams, and more slated public-school closings in the city, among other controversies. The groups BEN targets? Besides the city school system and city teachers unions, there's Advocates for Children and Youth, the Baltimore Coalition for Community Schools, the American Civil Liberties Union, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development--and that's just for starters.
"They have a real keen awareness of making sure that grass-roots individuals are represented all the time," says Sheila Drummond, executive director of the national advocacy group Communities in School. "They make sure that folks who normally don't get asked to sit at the table are there."
Both women have histories of schools activism that long predate BEN's founding in 1997. Ginsburg got involved in the PTA at her kids' school in Mount Washington in the late '70s and quickly found herself organizing on education-funding issues, lobbying locals to seek more state assistance. "Here I was working with all these high-powered people, but they needed help in pushing things forward," she says. Sims-El's involvement evolved from her son's diagnosis in the mid-'80s with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "I was at school almost every day because I knew parental involvement makes a difference," she says. She became active on curriculum issues, particularly challenging city schools to focus on African-American history.
The two met in 1997 shortly before a contentious PTA/City Council meeting to discuss the settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of special-education students, which led to the current city-state partnership running Baltimore public schools. "It was a crazy night, lots of hostility about the pros and cons of the lawsuit," Sims-El recalls. "But people left there feeling completely aware of what the lawsuit was about. It had energized people who had not been that active or informed outside of what was happening in their individual school."
In the wake of that meeting, Sims-El and Ginsburg recognized a lack of open communication among different education groups, and set out to create an organization that would appeal to all parties interested in schools reform.
"We really feel strongly there always needs to be an outside entity that brings issues to the table," Ginsburg says. "We need more leaders in this community--parents, not just people who have all the [academic] degrees. Everyone can get involved in education, and everyone deserves to have information and support systems."
You don't have to believe in Jesus to appreciate the power of African-American gospel worship in staving off urban despair. Untold thousands of Baltimoreans are sustained by these weekly infusions of song, Scripture, and unfettered black culture. In a city full of gospel singers, New Harvest Ministries has an especially fine, full-throated choir that swoops the congregation into a state of communal bliss. Elder Marcus Johnson, the church's soft-spoken founder and pastor, says the music offers an "escape from the drudgery of the day-to-day, from the pitfalls [worshippers] have fallen in." Along with the music, he says, comes "the comfort of family and the sense of belonging and identity." It's visible in the handshakes, hugs, and smiles exchanged throughout the service.
Since its founding two years ago, New Harvest has sought ways to project its spirit to the community outside its doors. One of the fledgling congregation's recent public acts was cleaning up the trash on surrounding blocks--"to attract the attention of the community," Johnson explains, "and to say, 'We've come to make a difference.'" For four Saturdays this past summer, the church again hit the street, closing the 2200 block of East Fayette for cleanups and block parties. An entire vacant lot's contents were loaded into Dumpsters.
During services, the church keeps its doors open, posting "greeters" at the threshold and on the corner on Sundays. They invite pedestrians, loiterers, even drug dealers and prostitutes to come inside. "We don't care how you come," Johnson says. "The worse you are, the more we're going to specialize in honoring you."
The results of this philosophy show partly in the church's booming attendance. New Harvest started in 1999 with 14 of Johnson's close friends and relatives, none of whom lived in East Baltimore. Today there are 700 formal members, with a typical Sunday attendance of 400. About a third can walk to church; the rest commute from as far away as Howard and Carroll counties. The flock includes former drug and alcohol addicts, students who bus in from Morgan State University and Loyola College, and an extended family of 50 Liberian refugees. Periodically, the church takes a "ministry on wheels" to local prisons and hospitals. Johnson has also expanded his efforts into the larger community, serving on the board of the Southeast Community Organization.
Veteran community activist Glenn Ross, president of the nearby McElderry Park Community Association, thinks New Harvest deserves much of the credit for recent improvements around the once-bedraggled junction of East Fayette and Patterson Park Avenue--an area he calls a "no man's land" that falls in the gap between organized neighborhoods. Street crime has dropped drastically in recent months, largely due to targeted police efforts, but the church, Ross says, laid the groundwork. "From day one, they started it," he declares. "You should have seen this corner!"
Letteron recently completed a bachelor's degree in geography and environmental planning from Towson University. When he started planting trees throughout his neighborhood 15 years ago, though, he wasn't part of the establishment. He was a brigand street blaster, using money he earned from building sets for local theaters to rent jackhammers and drill into sidewalks, hauling away the rubble and planting trees in the 4-foot-deep holes. (For the same service, says Marion Bedingfield, a tree-service technician with the city's Forestry Division, independent contractors charge about $500 per tree-filled hole.)
"It was a hoot," Letteron says of his urban-guerrilla days. "The police were after us because we planted hundreds of trees without permits. This was our version of graffiti."
By "our," he means people such as Richard Ellsberry and George McDowell, local groundbreakers Letteron credits with convincing him that adding trees to city streetscapes has an effect that goes beyond the aesthetic. Letteron found out what they meant in 1992, when he and two friends cleared a vacant dirt lot on Stockton Street of discarded refrigerators, sinks, and furniture and turned it into a small urban oasis. Today, residents help maintain the small park, which includes a perennial garden, pond, sculpted waterfall, and a totem pole carved by local kids, ringed by trees (sycamore, birch, maple, weeping mulberry, Japanese scholar, oak) and rose bushes.
Determining that he needed to learn more about trees and the conditions in which they thrive, Letteron ingratiated himself into the city's Forestry Division and eventually got a job with nonprofit Parks & People Foundation. For the past three years he has been writing grants and running a forestry program for the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council through which he and volunteers have planted more than 350 trees, an average of 100 a year. "There's nothing like coming upon a block full of concrete and leaving it with things growing there," he says.
Even though he has gone legit, Letteron still relies on his old street smarts to make ends meet. Whereas a tree-planting advocate in Roland Park might raise thousands of dollars a year through $50-a-plate dinners, the city's Bedingfield notes, Letteron cuts plant-purchasing costs by hauling live trees away from construction sites, and he sells sausages and sauerkraut to raise money at his annual October Treefest, which attracts volunteers for plantings along the Gwynns Falls. "No question about it," says Bedingfield, a frequent cohort on such efforts. "He's the original community forester for Baltimore."
This citywide sports organization has carried on for 21 years with barely a notice from the media, beyond the odd report on a championship game. Publicity, however, isn't a priority. Self-funded through membership fees, the league suffers no PR-hungry commercial sponsors. Its vast circle of athletes, families, and fans ensures full squads every season. And Lorenzo "Mike" Plater, who has volunteered as Cloverdale/BBA's de facto director for 21 years, has quite enough to do overseeing a league of several dozen teams competing in various age and gender divisions, a parent-run hoops summer camp and clinic, and all-star squads that compete in intercity playoffs up and down the East Coast.
Plater, the organization's undisputed patriarch and prime mover, is a retired addictions counselor who advocates basketball as a path to self-discipline, good citizenship, and higher education. His headquarters, a little cinder-block clubhouse uphill from the Cloverdale courts, is lined with championship T-shirts, photographs, posters, fliers, and two cases full of trophies. There's a tiny locker room on one end. Asked for highlights of his career with the league, he characteristically skips the trophy case, pointing instead to a photo of Cloverdale/BBA's 1983 East and West All-Star teams. "All of these boys went on to college," he says, reciting each player's name and the school he attended.
A trim, graybearded man of 68, Plater first came to the Cloverdale playground as a teenager from Sandtown in 1947. Eleven years later, Reservoir Hill's first formal summer hoops league was formed. The present association started in 1980, when the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks dropped its men's basketball program. Plater--who by then was coaching league games--joined with five other men to pick up where the city had left off. To keep the league independent, the founders set up a system in which member households commit not only money, but time and in-kind support, from coaching to helping with refreshments or transportation. The program and philosophy have expanded ever since.
Two of the original leaders--Plater and league president Fred "Speedy" Shelton--are still involved. Another founding father was former City Council member Carl Stokes, who was active in the league until five years ago. Plater "isn't crazy about college basketball, he's not crazy about pro, but he loves the game that's played on the street, and he loves the fact that it takes the young people off the street," Stokes explains. "He's driven by the fact that so many kids need an alternative."
"It's something I love to do," Plater says, "and it's something I've always believed people in the inner city could do."
There is nothing in this country like Stadium Place, a $47 million senior-housing project being hailed as a national model. Plans call for the former Memorial Stadium site to bring together elderly residents to live in a panoply of housing options--individually owned rowhouses, affordable assisted-living facilities, apartments subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state. "This will serve someone who counted on Bea Gaddy's soup kitchen or a Vanderbilt," Sharp says. While Vanderbilts will be welcome, Stadium Place will cater largely to people 62 and older with annual incomes of less than $20,000--a population with little access to most senior-housing and -care communities, many of which levy hefty entrance fees that can wipe out savings. (Stadium Place will charge no fees.)
Integration and community are watchwords for the 30-acre facility. A wellness center, convenience stores, a beauty parlor, and a multifaith meeting house, Thanks Giving Place, will all be centrally located on the site. Residents of surrounding neighborhoods will have access to a YMCA, a playground, athletic fields, and community meeting spaces on the Stadium Place grounds, in hopes of attracting families with children to commingle with the senior residents. "Research shows that intergenerational programming helps seniors live longer," Sharp says, "and the neighborhoods around there need a safe place where their children can play."
The 63-year-old Delaware native knows of what he speaks. Sharp was the driving force in the formation of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. (GEDCO), the consortium of 27 area churches behind Stadium Place and numerous other projects. In addition to lobbying state and local governments and advocating for the poor, GEDCO runs and oversees two apartment complexes for elderly residents, homes for the mentally handicapped, and an agency that provides financial aid to needy area residents.
Sharp's commitment and ingenuity in finding affordable housing solutions for people who need them most has drawn praise from high places. "I greatly admire not only Jack Sharp's faith," Mayor Martin O'Malley says, "but especially his action and persistence in benefitting all of Baltimore."
The center on South Regester Street is named for St. Francis of Assisi, who famously ministered to animals as well as the poor and sick. Images of the saint pop up around the building's cheerful, densely organized interior. It's a perfect environment for Velez, a small, hyperkinetic woman who easily juggles several interrelated trains of thought and conversation. Born in Connecticut, she came to Baltimore as a military wife, and signed on at St. Patrick's church in Fells Point to start a relief center for parishioners in need. She laughs and exclaims in Spanish when asked her age.
Now in its 18th year and its third cramped location, Assisi House has evolved into a crucial community nerve center, particularly for Southeast Baltimore's burgeoning Latino population, which makes up most of today's combined parish of St. Michael's and St. Patrick's. In the course of providing food, clothing, advice, and referrals (not to mention health fairs, Christmas parties, and concerts for teenagers), Velez herself has become one of the community's most passionate and effective advocates.
"She sees a need, she goes out and does the work," says Carmen Nieves, who plays a similar role as director of the Centro de la Comunidad on Pulaski Highway. "Everybody goes through her, because she's the one who gets it done."
Over the last five years, one of the biggest challenges facing Latino advocates has been spurring both City Hall and city police to recognize the need for bilingual services and for more attention to the community's concerns. "We started by going through all the proper channels," Velez says of her early efforts with the police department. "When I was ignored, that's when I started to yank chains and get upset and make the devil come out of the earth." Now the force has a citywide liaison officer, Sgt. Rufino Garcia, detailed to problems in the Hispanic community, and other bilingual officers are assigned to beats around Fells Point and Butchers Hill. Garcia, who deals with Velez several times a week, particularly admires her persuasive power in getting "not just women, but Hispanic men to come out to health fairs," and for transcending the local Latino community's tangled internal politics.
To Velez, it's all in a day's work. "You stand for the community or you don't stand for the community," she says, "and there's a time when you gotta stand up and shout."
Want to help this year's Unsung Heroes keep doing what they do? For information on volunteering or contributing, contact:
Baltimore Education Network: (410) 225-7152
Cloverdale/Baltimore Basketball Association: (410) 462-4303, (410) 462-6087
The Family Tree: (410) 889-2300, (410) 576-2414
Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.: (410) 433-2442
New Harvest Ministries: (410) 522-1300, firstname.lastname@example.org
Parks and People Foundation: (410) 448-5663, www.parksandpeople.org
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