It has been years since visitors to North Gay and Washington in East Baltimore have seen anything much but blight. Boarded-up rowhouses line the streets. Weeds flourish in sidewalk cracks.
But Walker Marsh looked at the Broadway East neighborhood and saw possibility. Marsh, 28, has created a flower farm that is an oasis of neighborhood beauty, put teenagers to work and holds out the promise of becoming an engine of economic opportunity.
"People look at a neighborhood like this and they don't see much in the way of hope," Marsh said while watering hundreds of plants at the half-acre site of Tha Flower Factory. "I'm hoping this shows there's a lot that can be done with the resources we have."
Marsh, a soft-spoken former Cylburn Arboretum horticultural assistant, got the idea for the business while working at Real Food Farm in Clifton Park, a produce farm operated by Civic Works, an urban service nonprofit.
He created Tha Flower Factory with the help of a $63,800 grant he won in Baltimore's annual Growing Green Design Competition in 2014, part of the mayor's campaign to transform vacant lots.
He has been selling flowers for several months now — Marsh names a cafe, floral design studio and variety of neighbors as clients — and he hired nine teens as workers this summer through Common Ground, a pilot program for youth offered by the nonprofit Community Conferencing Center.
Positive effects seem to be taking root, and neighbors have noticed.
As he watered his bright yellow sunflowers, purple salvia, pink phlox and red day lilies — not to mention the smattering of cabbage, peppers and tomatoes he grows and shares with neighbors for free — passing motorists honked encouragement and passers-by stopped to chat.
Andre Matthews, a frequent visitor to his daughter's home across Gay Street, came over to visit his new friend, who lives a few miles away in Waverly.
Matthews called Marsh's creation "a paradise in the jungle."
"I remember when this neighborhood wasn't nothing — just abandoned buildings, then after those were torn down, nothing but weeds and bricks and rocks," he said. "Marshall brought it back to life."
The farmer laughed and kept at his work.
Raising plants, he said, wasn't always in his plans.
Marsh has long been familiar with Broadway East — his family attended Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church nearby when he was a kid — but he grew up in Pikesville, where he helped his mother with her small garden but harbored no horticultural dreams.
After graduating from Milford Mill High School in 2006, he attended Virginia Tech University, where he says his personality made for a poor match with some of the demands of formal higher education.
"I had a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head, and I have to admit I had a few anger issues," he says.
Back in Baltimore, he tried a succession of office jobs before landing with Civic Works.
He recalls being less than excited when program leaders suggested he try working at Real Food Farm. "I was like a lot of young black males who look at farming as something like slave work," he says. But once he got his hands in the dirt, his viewpoint changed.
He loved being outdoors, where he no longer felt "cooped up." It struck him that there was time to slow down and think. He liked that the work had a clear and useful end result. He felt his mood calming, his mind gaining focus.
"You could plant and cultivate what you wanted. It felt like the truest kind of freedom. I wanted to keep doing this and give other people the chance to experience what I was feeling," Marsh says.
He shifted direction after two years, taking over flower greenhouse operations for Real Food, which, like the vast majority of Baltimore's urban farms, specializes in produce.
Ellen Frost of Local Color Flowers, a floral design company in Charles Village that buys exclusively from growers near Baltimore, took note of Marsh during that period, when he was also working at the arboretum.
"We've been waiting several years to be able to buy from Walker," she says. "With his positivity and the way he keeps his eye on the big picture, he's incredible. We're committed to buying from him."
Marsh says he draws inspiration from the long line of entrepreneurs in his family, starting with a great-grandfather, also named Walker Marsh, who ran a cobbling business in North Carolina in the early 1900s — "to be black and have your own business was difficult back then" — and his father, who owned a computer consulting company.
He calculated that raising flowers would be more lucrative than growing produce and made his move in 2014, applying for the city grant.
Marsh says he believed so much in his idea that he wasn't surprised to win. The hard part was putting all he had learned into practice.
He had a contracting company come to the site last April to grade and do preliminary clearing. After that, he and his young workers labored to dig up the rocks, bricks and pipe that lay just below the surface.
He was impressed with his crew, teens between 14 and 19 recruited from the juvenile justice system. These "growers," as Marsh called them, worked 20 hours a week through mid-August.
Many showed a keen interest in starting businesses of their own, he said, and were attentive to the instruction he gave in horticulture and management practices.
Marsh said he shared much of what he'd learned himself over the past several years, including one method for manipulating plant growth. "If you cut the flower off a plant early, that tricks it to grow bigger. Instead of spending energy to produce flowers, it will produce energy to grow bigger and bigger," he says.
Stuck for a name for his business, he turned to members of the Broadway East Community Association, a group with whom he consulted on a regular basis.
Association president Eric Booker told him he needed "something that sounded sexy, liked 'The Flower Factory,'" Marsh recalls.
He loved it — but he settled on a colloquial spelling of "the," he says, as a cultural statement.
"People tend to see that kind of language or spelling as being ignorant or uneducated, but it's nothing more than the culture I grew up in," he says. "It's interesting that you still get the same feeling from it as if it were spelled the 'correct' way."
If all goes as he intends, he'll establish many similar farms throughout Baltimore, employ many more young people and eventually adults, own his own nursery one day and ultimately become as rich as the legacy he's creating in Broadway East.
"My main goal is to beautify, to continue to employ folks and to grow the economy," Marsh says. "That's really the mission statement of the farm: to grow together."