New mural lifts a community's spirits – and increases awareness of Harris Creek watershed

A green, fragrant and colorful oasis transforms a vacant city lot

Leonard Wills said that any mural located in his neighborhood had to have at least one fish. And there it is in the lower left corner — a flapping tail emerging from the mouth of a great blue heron.

Cynthia Gross said there had to be yellow in the mural, because that is the color of CARE, the community association she heads. So the sky, shown at sunrise, is streaked gold, and the color is reflected in the waves below.

And 14-year-old Dennis Hopps hopes he submitted the two winning names for the orioles depicted in the painting: "Mysterous" (which Dennis deliberately spelled without an "I" to heighten the enigma of the giant bird whose black wing sweeps over his breast like a cloak) and "Serenity" for the way the smaller bird seems to float motionless in the air.

"I was here when the neighborhood was at its peak," the 75-year-old Wills said. "It went down to nothing. Now you look at something like this, and it tells me the neighborhood is coming back. It lightens my day."

The approximately 24-foot-by-18-foot wall painting is one of five large-scale water-themed murals — and the first to be completed — that will be created under the auspices of the Waterfront Partnership's Healthy Harbor Initiative.

It also puts the finishing touches on a neighborhood beautification project that in three years has transformed a debris-strewn vacant lot into a green and fragrant oasis at the corner of McElderry Street and Collington Avenue.

The Waterfront Partnership celebrated Saturday by hosting a barbecue for local residents with enough food to feed 50. They grilled chicken and hot dogs, passed around bags of chips and cups of the first apple cider of the season, and gave away cloth bags that could be used to carry groceries.

Children were encouraged to enter a "name the orioles" contest. Toddlers drew water-inspired creations in chalk on the sidewalk. Pink fish with crooked smiles leapt happily over a line of blue waves.

"The whole idea is to get folks to think differently about keeping their neighborhoods clean, said Leanna Wetmore, a community organizer for the Waterfront Partnership.

The murals also are a way to raise awareness of the Harris Creek watershed, which traverses 17 Baltimore neighborhoods. The murals, which all will be located within the watershed, are a visible manifestation of unseen underground waters.

"It can be difficult to get people to realize that they are connected to the watershed when they can't see it," Wetmore said.

"All the trash that falls by these murals ends up in the same outfall. It's hard to talk about trash in a way that sounds like fun, so I bring art into the mix."

Artist Bridget Cimino spent two months working on the Collington Avenue mural, which features animals and plants native to Maryland and Baltimore, such as the blue-and-yellow flag iris.

"I wanted people to realize," she said, "that what you put into the ground goes into the harbor and affects the birds and wildlife. Nature and the city are interconnected."

The mural is the culmination of a beautification program that began about three years ago when the nonprofit organization Civic Works planted a columnar tree and three rosebushes in the vacant lot, which had become a debris-filled eyesore.

"It had gotten so bad," Wills said, "the city wouldn't even clean that lot. It was infested with rats."

After the first plants went in, Hattie Washington, 67 — the neighborhood calls her "Miss Hattie" and "Mama" — took it upon herself to start stopping by to spruce things up. Her mother's great-aunt had lived in a house that had formerly stood on that lot, and Washington knew her ancestor would appreciate her efforts to keep the lot tidy.

During twice-weekly visits, Washington weeded, picked up litter and pruned overgrown shrubs.

The lot began looking pretty good. Civic Works added more plants, a stone column, and paved walking paths. On fine evenings, neighbors down the block began pulling their chairs up to the corner to chat.

Though Washington had been donating her labor for free, Wetmore recently arranged for her to receive a small stipend.

"Now they have other lots they want me to take care of," Washington said, and laughed delightedly.

"This," she said, "is my garden."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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