Someone set a BMW on fire in front of the rowhouse where Elder C.W. Harris lives on Presstman Street in West Baltimore. It was Monday night, one of the worst in the history of the city, so the minister and his wife, Amelia, walked up to the corner known as Resurrection Intersection to make sure the things they care about survived.
One is Martha's Place, a transitional home for women recovering from drug addiction. It's in a double-rowhouse on the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Upton Metro stop. Across the street is the Harris-Marcus Center, home of Jubilee Arts — a great space with classes in dance, art and writing. And just to the north is the Choose Life Mural and Memorial Garden, a patch of urban serenity dedicated to those who've died from drug addiction and violence over the years.
Each of those places survived Monday's assaults on West Baltimore.
They were each the creation of Elder Harris and his colleagues from Newborn Holistic Ministries. They've spent 20 years establishing Resurrection Intersection, and they weren't about to let vandals tear it down.
The corners of Pennsylvania and Presstman used to be open-air drug markets. Many of the properties were once vacant. You go there now, and you feel the same confidence and hope you get from Elder Harris' big smile.
Tuesday, the day after the riots and lootings and fire just a few blocks away, there was no sense of chaos or despair on the corner. Harris and his wife had held off the bad guys. The charred BMW had been towed away.
It was a splendid spring day. Children from Jubilee Arts painted a mural on a sunny wall in the alley behind the Harris-Marcus Center. A group of women from a church strolled down shady Presstman Street. A soft breeze put a bounce in the limbs of trees. Blossoms sprinkled through the air. Take away the throb of television helicopters over North Avenue, five blocks away, and you'd never know Baltimore was in a state of emergency — not at Resurrection Intersection, anyway.
Harris is a big presence in Upton and Sandtown-Winchester. He's founder of Newborn ministries. Starting in the 1990s, he was deeply involved in the efforts to bring new housing to Sandtown-Winchester. That's where Freddie Gray was arrested — one of the most troubled parts of the city.
More than two decades into that effort, initiated by the late developer James Rouse during the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area still registers poorly by the measures of the Baltimore City Health Department — in lead paint violations, liquor store density, third- and fourth-grade reading proficiency, juvenile arrests, domestic violence, life expectancy.
Last month, the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative added this to the community profile: Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park had sent more people to state prisons than any other census tract in Maryland. The 458 inmates from the community cost taxpayers $17 million each year to incarcerate.
Harris understands this and tries to explain what happened: It's one thing to build houses; it's another to rebuild people. "And a lot of the people who were able to purchase the new homes in Sandtown were not from the community," he added. "Most of the people who lived here could not afford them."
The effort wasn't sustained. Long-standing problems need long-term answers. Many more services were needed. "And too many people came from outside the community, and not enough was done to include people from within the community to improve Sandtown," he said.
But Harris and his Newborn colleagues still have a stake in Sandtown — a series of long hoop houses set on 1.5 acres on Lorman Street, between Fulton Avenue and Monroe Street. There are 18 hoop houses altogether, their ribs covered with opaque plastic sheeting. Each house is full of dark, rich soil, and from the soil bright greens have already emerged.
This surprising urban garden is another of Elder Harris' faith-based enterprises. He collaborates with James Rouse's son, Ted, owner of Big City Farms, to provide produce for local customers. He puts "returning citizens" — ex-offenders home from prison — to work in the hoop houses. The Monroe Street plant for P. Flanigan & Sons, the 130-year-old asphalt company, sits across from the gardens; the company donated grading and gravel when the hoop houses went up in 2012.
Monday night, someone set a car on fire near one of the hoop houses. The heat melted away several sections of plastic. But when Harris arrived on the scene Tuesday morning, dozens of people had come to clean up and stretch new plastic over the exposed sections. It was the kind of scene repeated in several corners of the city after Monday night's riots — strangers and neighbors stepping up, pitching in and helping out.
"I didn't know any of them, they just came," Harris said. "It was the most wonderful display of humanity I have ever seen. People I had never seen before came to support us. It was as if they knew someone in the family was in trouble."