Jacques Kelly: Fayette Street Outreach joining hands, and rowhouses, to build West Baltimore community center

New walls and a roof are part of the transformation of a pair of West Baltimore rowhouses into the first permanent base for a neighborhood group determined to make their community a better place.

“We needed a place where we could attract young people,” said Edna Manns-Lake, president of Fayette Street Outreach, a group representing a rectangle of the city roughly bounded by Monroe, Mulberry and Baltimore streets and the Gwynns Falls Trail.

Manns-Lake said the new Fayette Street Outreach community center, taking shape in homes that once faced the old Mrs. Ihrie’s potato chip factory and located a few blocks from Bon Secours Hospital, is a brick-and-mortar way of saying she and her Fayette Outreach neighbors are here to make their neighborhood strong again.

She and her neighbors are ready to help with tutoring, computer literacy and other programs, she said — and also have a larger vision.

“We want to get our story out there,” Manns-Lake said. “We’ve come together to make our community a better place to live.”

Using grant money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and funds from a state bond bill, the Fayette Street Outreach neighbors acquired and are renovating the homes at 27 to 29 N. Smallwood Street.

The properties have been joined together, and the floors lowered, by Trident Builders, the contractor for the project. Members of the nonprofit, all-volunteer Fayette Street Outreach expect to move in this year and will hold a fundraiser from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Feb. 3 at Bon Secours Summit, 2 N. Smallwood St., to raise money for furnishings.

“We love this part of Baltimore,” said Timothy Bridges, a lifelong Fayette Street resident and member of the group. “I watched my mother — Miss Vi — live here and give back to the community. She had a grocery store and was always giving out pencils and things to students at our schools. I watched her, and now it’s my opportunity to step up.”

Another member who serves as its treasurer, Sterling Brunson, said that while growing up in the community, he watched neighbors become energized by the Afro-American newspapers’ Clean Block Campaign. Now he organizes neighborhood cleanups.

Residents say the blocks at the center of Fayette Street Outreach’s focus — including West Lexington Street — are well occupied with homeowners. Many homes on the busier streets are vacant. Members of the community group would like to train residents in de-construction and basic building skills, and hope to attract builders and developers to take on some of its estimated 100 units of vacant housing stock.

“We are looking to become economically self-sufficient,” Brunson said. “We are always looking for partners to help us grow.”

Members of Fayette Street Outreach believe there is an opportunity to seize. The MARC West Baltimore transit hub, with direct commuter train access to Washington, D.C., is within walking distance of the neighborhood. The University of Maryland, Baltimore is a major employment center about 15 blocks to the east. And, there’s Bon Secours Hospital.

“We feel we are ready for some good change,” said Bridges, who has been a member of the group since it was founded 25 years ago. That first night, Aug. 24, 1993, residents congregated in a Bon Secours meeting room to hear then-Del. Elijah Cummings speak. Cummings, now a member of Congress, assisted Fayette Street Outreach in obtaining the pair of Smallwood Street rowhouses.

“We felt the need to bring the community together and to give the community power — and build leadership,” said Manns-Lake, who has resided in the neighborhood more than 40 years. She estimated that 1,300 families live in her community.

“People are looking for ways to bring Baltimore back, to make it a better place and bring financial opportunity back into the community,” Bridges said.

“We are here to do that,” he said. “Our program is shovel-ready.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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