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Urban renewal that starts at the curb

Couple plants Old Goucher tree wells and beautification takes root

Susan Reimer

3:44 PM EDT, June 26, 2013

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When Mateusz Rozanski and Kelly Cross planted a tiny boxwood hedge in front of their Maryland Avenue house, they woke the next morning to find all the expensive little shrubs gone.

So they planted the twin patches of dirt again, and again the plants disappeared.

And again.

But they just kept planting. And in a kind of urban miracle, their optimism overwhelmed the vandalism, and the thieves just gave up trying to steal their gardens.

"Something just clicked," said Mr. Rozanski, "and it started being respected."

He grew up in Poland, gardening at the hem of his grandmother's apron, and he continues to garden like a madman. The walled garden behind the historic house he and Mr. Cross are restoring in Old Goucher is filled with a flower garden, a water garden, a vegetable garden and a small orchard. He grows everything from tomatoes to Mandarin oranges, from palm trees to zinnias.

But one of his three advanced degrees is in public policy, and his belief that he and Mr. Cross can turn around a decaying neighborhood with plants and trees is founded in that education.

And it seems to be working.

He and Mr. Cross, buoyed by the "respect" shown to their tiny front yard, began to open up dozens of tree wells in front of their house on Maryland Avenue and on adjacent 24th Street and around the block. The crumbled cement they jack-hammered out of the way lies in piles, waiting for the city to take it away.

With money from Tree Baltimore and grants from civic associations, they have planted about 100 trees. Tulip poplars, sycamores, oaks and maples will someday create a canopy of trees where none existed before the pair moved here from Georgetown three years ago, looking for room to garden.

The beds are also planted with fragrant trees and shrubs, including gardenias and camellias, as well as colorful azaleas and pencil hollies. Enormous planters, donated by Patapsco Valley Supplies and filled with small trees, plants and vines, dot the street corners, hearkening back to the refinement of late 1800s when this was called "the Street of Mayors" because the city's leadership retired to mansions here.

"We are seeing what happens when a place becomes hospitable," said Mr. Rozanski. Tall and powerfully built, he does most of the gardening and renovation. But you will find Mr. Cross, who works as a lawyer in the city, out at night pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with jugs of water.

The neighborhood is located north of Pennsylvania Station and Maryland Institute College of Art, and while there are still plenty of sketchy types around, the beautification efforts have brought back the good-guy foot traffic. Children play on the wide brick sidewalks and tell the couple how pretty it all smells.

"People have decided that this street can be the route they walk, and they are extra eyes," said Mr. Rozanski. "So many extra eyes that it will be uncomfortable for the other elements to exist here."

This gardening is contagious.

Neighbor Kris Northrup purchased her own giant planters for the front of her house. The owner of the apartments on the corner and his daughter planted flower beds, and the people around the corner planted sunflowers. Another pair of neighbors was inspired to plant an herb garden on the tiniest patch of dirt, and the owner set out her own set of planters as soon as they planted the tree well in front of her studio.

Businesses in the area have been slow to join in the beautification efforts, but some are coming around. "We are sitting on their backs," said Mr. Rozanski.

You don't just buy a house, said Mr. Rozanski, you buy a neighborhood. "We worried for a while that we would be the two idiots, gardening. But we knew we had to go all the way."

Their work outside puts them within ear shot of passers-by who are startled by the change, impressed by the effort, charmed by the beauty.

"And you know it is worth all the effort," said Mr. Rozanski.

Mr. Cross just wishes they'd all stop by in the evening when it is time to water.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com