Baltimore pocket parks make big impacts in small spaces

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, 67, grew tired of looking at a desolate lot filled with trash and old mattresses in his Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The longtime civil rights leader proposed to make a change — to transform the area into a park and playground.

“We could tell our community children needed something more than to walk seven to eight blocks to get to a park,” Cheatham said.

With the help of city and state funds, Cheatham and residents planted garden plots and cherry blossom trees. They constructed chess tables, a stage and swing sets, and a Little Free Book Library. In April, after nearly a year of hard work, they opened the Easterwood/Sandtown Park and Playground, one of the city’s newest pocket parks, or “parkettes” — small, community-managed green spaces that operate as places of recreation and community.

Baltimore has more than 270 green spaces, many of which qualify as pocket parks, according to the nonprofit Baltimore Green Space, which helps preserve such spaces. The organization has seen increased interest in green spaces and pocket parks in the last 10 years, said the program’s director, Katie Lautar, but they’re not a new phenomenon. Residents — especially those in African-American communities — have been quietly managing green spaces in their neighborhoods for longer than any of us could imagine, she said.

Proponents say these mini-parks bring big benefits to their neighborhoods.

“We know from decades of research and experience in this country that having that kind of asset in your neighborhood is good for people’s health,” said Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder, president and CEO of Parks & People, an organization that supports community-managed parks. “It brings people outside, and it has a positive impact on reducing crime and builds value of communities for residents.”

And as Canton pocket park chair Christian Taylor said, they’re “a relief from the concrete jungle of the cityscape.”

Each pocket park is different, reflecting the unique desires and creativity of the residents who helped build it. These 10 embody that spirit and are worth a step off the beaten path.

Amazing Port Street Commons, 615 N. Port St., McElderry Park

Tucked behind Amazing Grace Lutheran Church and down a narrow alley street, this green space fills the center of a city block, bursting with color in a pebble prayer labyrinth, a pollinator garden, benches and gardening areas with fresh vegetables and herbs abloom.

The church and a community association helped create this common area around 2001, after solidifying a land trust for the property. They tore down existing vacant homes, creating a play space for children and a rain garden to filter stormwater runoff.

Church members, neighbors and children from the neighborhood volunteered to clean up the area. Artists painted murals on homes and educational illustrations on the Port Street blacktop, one showing the evolution of a monarch butterfly from an egg to a winged insect.

“We were facing a lot of challenges. It’s an underserved community,” said Amazing Grace’s pastor, Gary Dittman. “There’s a lot of poverty and people trying to make things work.”

Today, Amazing Port Street Commons is used for a range of events — among them, spring fling festivals, cookouts and resource fairs. But just “hanging out and relaxing is a big piece,” Dittman said. “The spirit is very beautiful.”

Brentwood Commons, 1816 Brentwood Ave., Greenmount West

This pocket park is a symbol of a changing neighborhood once plagued by lead paint and vacant homes, says Lowell Larsson, site manager of Brentwood Commons.

In 2005, the common area behind the 400 block of East North Avenue in Greenmount West was just an empty lot, but with the help of the community, by 2012 it was transformed into a green space, featuring a variety of plants, a pathway, and a red abstract sculpture, titled “Open Door.”

It represents “an opening for people,” said Larsson, who has seen renewed interest in the neighborhood since the park was added. “It’s about having a resource for this part of the city.”

At just over 3,440 square feet, the small park is monumental — “a source of beauty for people who come by,” he said. “It’s for contemplation.”

Charles M. Halcott Square, 104 S. Duncan St., Butchers Hill

Built in 1977 on a dumping ground that replaced seven razed alley homes, this Butchers Hill park is a red brick oasis, featuring benches, a picnic table and a variety of flowers.

Daffodils, tulips, day lilies, black-eyed Susans, and hydrangeas decorate the space, which was named after a local activist and Recreation & Parks employee who died just years before it was built, according to the park steward, Steve Young.

Young, who planted the park’s centerpiece — a Yoshino Cherry tree — around 15 years ago, said there are also maples, hawthorns and yew shrubs that are original to the park.

While Halcott Square, which was under city jurisdiction until Baltimore Green Space acquired it in 2014, is typically used for sitting and relaxing, the Butchers Hill Association hosts its annual summer potluck and community events in the space.

Easterwood/Sandtown Park & Playground, 1500 block of McKean Avenue, Sandtown-Winchester

A source of pride for Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood known as the former home of Freddie Gray, the park and playground is one of the largest green spaces in the area, with a manicured lawn, garden plots, pathways and cherry blossom trees. Roughly the length of roughly 22 rowhomes, the park includes the cement chess tables and swing set, the Little Free Library, barbecue pits for grilling, and a stage for performances and outdoor movies.

Cheatham, who grooms and cleans the park daily, led the McKean Avenue space’s transformation starting last year. It previously held six vacant houses and an empty lot filled with trash. It became a park with the help of city and state funds, Parks and People, and members of the community, including Carver Vocational Technical and Digital Harbor high school students and teachers, who helped build some of the amenities.

"I just got so tired of seeing it. I told the neighbors, ‘Let's take over the lot, and let's rehab it,’ " said Cheatham. But there’s still work to do.

The park is located near several abandoned homes and one of the city's largest open-air drug markets, according to Cheatham.

Still, he said the park is a longtime dream of his, and there’s an unwritten agreement: People, including those involved in illegal activity, respect the park.

It’s “encouraging. They're letting the park alone and letting the children play.”

Pigtown Horseshoe Pit, 1217 Bayard St., Pigtown

Rooted in healthy competition and years of tradition, this 12-by-60-foot park, now protected by Baltimore Green Space, has been around for more than three decades.

The small grassy area, which today hosts a stake for a game of horseshoes, became a fixture in the neighborhood after three residents began informally using the space for gatherings and horseshoe tournaments. A mural on the rowhome next to the park features three men engaged in a game.

Sisson Street Community Park, 2701 Sisson St., Remington

Neighbors have been collectively caring for the Sisson Street lot — maintaining the grassy area, which now hosts 40 garden plots — long before the resident-powered Greater Remington Improvement Association officially adopted it, transforming the half-city block into a park and garden.

“It truly is a community-managed space, and there are quite a few people who are dedicated to maintaining it, which is really important,” said Molly McCullagh, of the Remington association.

The eye-catching garden is brimming with blooming sunflowers, fruits and vegetables, and the spacious park is peppered with picnic tables — ideal for its community Popsicle nights, potlucks and yard sales — and includes a play area for kids, complete with colorful bamboo poles and logs to spark the imagination.

Sunflower Village at Franklin Square, 216 N. Carey St., Franklin Square

If you’re looking for some creative inspiration or a place to host an outdoor fete, Sunflower Village at Franklin Square already has some of the work done for you. Adopted by the Franklin Square Community Association in 2012, the park features totem poles with colorful flags overhanging the green space, which connects its two murals on either side — each decorated with larger-than-life sunflowers.

The village, which once harbored five homes that were destroyed by fires, has since hosted community events and birthday parties, according to Edith Gilliard-Canty, president of the Franklin Square Community Association.

Two Rivers Park, 902 S. Potomac St., Canton

Whether you’re coming or going, this Canton pocket park has been described as a “brief repose” from the city’s gray buildings, according to the park chair, Christian Taylor.

Named after its two cross streets — Potomac and Hudson — the long, narrow park features a walkway leading community members through the park with grass, trees and a bench. The city relinquished its manicuring duties to the community in 2005, giving rights to the community to transform an area riddled with rubbish and 6-foot-tall weeds into the current “mini-forest,” said Taylor.

Though small in size, the park has been host to at least one engagement photo shoot, a yearly fundraising cooking out that helps fund maintenance of the park, and informal gatherings. But mainly, Taylor said, it’s just a “quick break” for people in the neighborhood.

“Even 30 seconds to walk your dog in the morning is enough to make you feel recharged from whatever else you got going on,” he said.

Victorine Q. Adams Community Garden, 3200 block of Vickers Road, Hanlon-Longwood

Named after Victorine Q. Adams, the first African-American woman to serve on the Baltimore City Council, this Hanlon-Longwood community green space and organic co-op garden features several raised plant beds tended to by families in the community, benches to sit and a large community space with a stage that is used for family events and community gatherings.

According to garden coordinator Warren “Johnny” Shaw, the garden and community space — an estimated 190 feet by 250 feet — was constructed in 2008 to beautify the neighborhood and to commemorate notable community members and African-Americans, like George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Henrietta Lacks, all of whom are featured on posters lining the space.

The grill, nicknamed the “Buddy Young Barbecue,” is named for a late Baltimore Colts player who once lived in the community and built its original barbecue pit.

Whitelock Community Farm Park, 930 Whitelock St., Reservoir Hill

With a vibrant garden that occupies most of the block, a bustling produce stand that operates on Saturdays, and a community compost area, the Whitelock Community Farm is a sight to see — and the park, located across the street, is the ideal complement.

Once an infamous open-air drug market in the 1970s and ‘80s, the space was renovated to include the farm in 2010. Renovations on the park began around 2012 through a partnership between the farm and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Association, said Justin Kuk, board president for Whitelock Community Farm.

Surrounded by perennials and circular wooden seating, the 18,000-square-foot park’s grassy area is often used for convening and hosts the farm’s monthly yoga events and community potlucks, Kuk said.

An outdoor community kitchen was added this summer, complete with a sink, long concrete countertops, and grills.

The park also boasts brick-seating for those waiting at the corner bus stop, a take-and-return book library and six planter boxes.

“We’re really just finishing up some of the final landscaping right now,” said Kuk, who is working with community members to host future food workshops, outdoor movies and community festivals.

“It’s an open space accessible to anybody, despite race, age or economic background,” he said.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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