Block party breaks down West Baltimore boundaries

A grass-roots idea to bridge the gaps among racially divided neighborhoods has blossomed into an annual block party in West Baltimore that drew hundreds Saturday to a triangular park in Upton.

At the fifth annual Boundary Block Party, sponsored by a coalition of five of the city's central-western neighborhoods, children frolicked near a fountain, a wooden platform served as a stage for local musicians and choirs, and dozens of people lined up for free hot dogs and potato salad.

The event, coordinated by the resident-led No Boundaries Coalition, had been held in past years on Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill, which residents said has long been perceived as the dividing line between neighborhoods that are predominantly white and predominantly African-American.

Residents have wanted to erase those lines by filling the street with an annual party that brings together people of different backgrounds, races and ethnicities. And it is working, said Rebecca Nagle, one of the residents who helped start the boundary parties, then in 2010 became a founder of the coalition that grew out of the annual event.

"I was living on Eutaw Place and was discouraged by the division I saw," said Nagle, who moved to Baltimore about six years ago from Kansas and teaches in an after-school art program. "I saw Eutaw Place as a racial divide."

She said she's seen a difference over the years, and "one of the reasons is that people know each other."

This year, the party moved to a paved oasis of trees and rosebushes at Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street surrounded by blocks where many homes stand vacant. Organizers say they hope to keep moving the party to different spots in each of the neighborhoods.

Moving the block party around West Baltimore should help encourage people to visit spots where they otherwise might not go, said Mariska Jordan, a coalition member who works for Jubilee Arts.

"Now you have to get out of your comfort zone," Jordan said.

This year's event drew Upton resident Jackie Jones for the first time. Such events, which appeal to families and children, give a boost to the neighborhood, said Jones, a mother of four.

"A couple of years ago, this area here was filled with drugs," she said. "It's much better."

Crowds gathered at the edge of the park to watch performances on a stage set up across a closed-off South Stockton Street, next to two vacant buildings. Performers included Expressions of Faith Gospel Choir, the Todd Marcus Trio playing jazz, and students from Booker T. Washington Middle School, who sang the national anthem before jumping down from the stage and encouraging party attendees to join in a dance in the street.

The block party has evolved into a celebration of the work that the coalition and its member organizations is accomplishing, such as building and rehabilitating new homes. The coalition was formed in June 2010, after about two dozen neighborhoods leaders met at a church for a lasagna dinner. Member groups include churches, community associations, schools and nonprofits.

Coalition member Jubilee Arts has used the annual event to showcase public art projects that involve the community. The coalition has been putting together five identical murals that will be pasted to buildings in each of the five neighborhoods: Bolton Hill, Druid Heights, Madison Park, Sandtown and Upton. On Saturday, the group displayed the mural that will be used this year.

Each mural contains about 25 black-and-white portrait photographs of residents from each of the neighborhoods and a quote from each on the importance of community. The murals will include blackboards where people can fill in their own thoughts on the topic.

One mural was on display at the park on Saturday. Nearby were large rectangular blackboards and chalk that people used to answer the question "Why is community important?"

On one, someone had written, "Because we all need each other." Another said, "It makes me happy."

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