'Not just buildings': Center helps develop community

At 29{+t}{+h} Street Community Center: “We are creating space for community to happen.”

It looked like a fairly standard play group: a man playing guitar, scattered toys, toddlers yanking purposefully on adult fingers and clothes.

But community leaders and public officials gathered Monday at the 29th Street Community Center to show off something else that's happening: the strengthening of a neighborhood.

"There are a lot of things that are community development, not just buildings," said Odette Ramos, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland Inc., which represents community development groups across the state. "It's multifaceted and very, very important."

The 29th Street Community Center in Barclay was the first stop on a tour of the state that Ramos's organization organized to celebrate Maryland Community Development Week.

Other stops during the tour included a walking tour of commerical efforts along Ocean City's Main Street — Baltimore Avenue, not the boardwalk — and the Dundalk Fall Festival, which is sponsored by the Dundalk Renaissance Corp.

The Community Development Network also wants to highlight a recent survey the group took of its roughly 130 members, which found that the community development groups invest more than $86 million in the state each year and directly employ about 2,000 people.

"When we talk about economic impact, there is a big punch," Ramos said. "And we cannot underestimate — nor could we actually count — the social impact. People are coming into get the services from these organizations ... and that adds a big value."

The 29th Street Community Center, which is run by the Greater Homewood Community Corp., opened in May 2013 after a $20,000 renovation. The building once housed a city rec center, but it closed in 2012 when the city's Department of Recreation and Parks shut or shifted responsibility to the school system or private groups for two dozen of its 55 centers.

Today, the center hosts about 40 programs, ranging from GED and computer classes to dance, yoga and violin lessons. Between 300 and 400 people participate each week, from babies to octogenarians, said director Hannah Gardi.

"It's great … for people like us that just came in here and need to meet new people," said Inayah, 34, who moved to St. Paul Street about two months ago from Indonesia when her husband started his public health studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

Inayah, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said she learned about the center from a neighbor and now goes with her two children, ages 6 and 3, about twice a week.

"The activities for the children are so good," she said. And "it forces me to mingle with people and practice the language."

Any city resident may attend the center's programs, but its outreach is focused on neighborhoods nearby, including Harwood, Charles Village and Better Waverly.

The center operates on a $130,000 annual budget, offering most of its classes — many led by neighbors — for free. It generates revenue by renting the building and hopes to be self-sustaining in five years, Gardi said. The model, which currently is helped by donations from organizations such as Hopkins, has drawn notice from community organizers in other parts of the city and country, she said.

"We are doing something innovative with something that seems pretty typical — a community center seems like something that every neighborhood should have," she said. "But the way we've structured it and the way we are creating a space for community to happen I think is really innovative."

Karen Stokes, executive director of Greater Homewood Community Corp., said the hope is that parents who enjoy the center with their babies will want to stay in the neighborhood when their children reach their school years.

"It's all tied together," she said. "We want to be and are in fact a new anchor institution in this neighborhood."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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