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One rock at a time: Pigtown Climbs seeks to build community in Southwest Baltimore

The abandoned lot in Pigtown on Washington Boulevard sat empty for 60 or so years. Now a group dedicated to equitable development and environmental justice wants to build a climbing gym there. But before one rock is scaled, its leaders are talking to the community.

So far, seven neighborhoods in Southwest Baltimore have had many of their doors knocked on in an effort to gather information about what people want in a gym. More than 130 survey responses have been received, with residents asking for after-school youth programs, pottery and yoga classes. Others have called for beautification projects and artist talks.

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Jelytza Padro, marketing director, Bri'Anna Horne, director of operations, and Sih Oka-zeh, co-director of community outreach and engagement, inside an overgrown lot they're developing into a climbing center.
Jelytza Padro, marketing director, Bri'Anna Horne, director of operations, and Sih Oka-zeh, co-director of community outreach and engagement, inside an overgrown lot they're developing into a climbing center. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Pigtown Climbs LLC is a community-led organization attempting to use the sport of rock climbing to promote racial justice, health, and environmental initiatives. An eight-member board of directors and 300 volunteers are transforming an overgrown lot on the Pigtown Mainstreet Corridor into an accessible community climbing and gathering space for Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. The organization filed last month to become a nonprofit group.

“We want to hear from the community before we lay even one brick down on this lot,” said Jelytza Padro, the marketing director.

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Three houses that previously stood on the property burned down and were later demolished. 930 Group LLC, which owns the lot, is working in partnership with Pigtown Climbs to develop the land for its new uses.

A Pigtown Climbs founder and its director of operations, Bri’Anna Horne has lived in Pigtown for three years. During the neighborhood canvass, one resident’s comments left a heartbreaking mark on Horne.

“Over the past 35 years, she had seen a lot being used for private purposes, but never anything with the community in mind,” Horne said. Until Pigtown Climbs reached out, she had never been asked for input on development in her neighborhood.

“There are a lot of nonprofits that try to do really beautiful work, but they can do so kind of ignorant of the fact that there are communities that already exist there, that have lived there for centuries and that have their own way of doing things,” said Sih Oka-zeh, who co-leads community outreach and engagement for Pigtown Climbs.

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“These groups can come in and put a stake in the ground and say that they’re there. We want to make sure that as we’re occupying the space, that we’re figuring out if people actually want us here, if what we were doing is something that they wanted, something that they could be a part of.”

Bri'Anna Horne, director of operations for Pigtown Climbs, near the overgrown lot the group is developing into a climbing center.
Bri'Anna Horne, director of operations for Pigtown Climbs, near the overgrown lot the group is developing into a climbing center. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

According to the surveys, 85% strongly agreed or agreed that they would like for the space to be used for outdoor climbing, while 12% were neutral and 2% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Providing access to climbing and celebrating representation in the outdoors is happening in other pockets of Baltimore, with Earth Treks Hampden hosting monthly Queer Climbing Nights and Brown Girls Climb hosting meetups across the region. Nationally, organizations such as HBCUs Outside are closing the adventure gap for students and alumni from historically Black colleges and universities by offering affordable gear and hiking expeditions to the Adirondacks, Kilimanjaro and the Great Smoky Mountains.

A barrier to climbing for Padro was the cost. Growing up in Puerto Rico and North Carolina, she loved outdoor activities and would go hiking and mountain biking with her father.

I did AmeriCorps for a couple of years, and when you work in the nonprofit sector, you don’t get paid a lot,” said Padro, who started climbing six years ago and rediscovered her love for the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic. “So, an $80 to $120 monthly membership just for a gym, on top of the cost of the shoes and the gear that you need to safely climb, there’s been times where I’ve had to borrow or go with a group because they had everything that I didn’t.”

Pigtown Climbs will offer a sliding scale of membership rates with a pay-what-you-can model.

Another barrier has been a lack of diversity in the climbing community.

“Sometimes there’s just this feeling of gatekeeping, because you’re not at their skill level and you’re just starting out,” Padro said. “Or just like general conversations, like as a person of color, how much do I have to work or code switch or how much mental energy do I have to use just to fit into this group that I want to do this athletic activity in?”

Jelytza Padro is the marketing director for Pigtown Climbs.
Jelytza Padro is the marketing director for Pigtown Climbs. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Horne says Pigtown made perfect sense as the neighborhood is active in and invested in building up community in meaningful ways.

Its location is a significant factor, as well. To the east of Pigtown, Horne said, are well-funded neighborhoods with resources, such as the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill.

Where Pigtown is, where Southwest Baltimore is, you can see that there’s been a complete disinterest in those communities. [Climbing] is a white-dominated sport and it’s bringing communities that would otherwise ignore Southwest Baltimore and making them see how valuable this community is so that we can provide the resources that the neighborhood deserves and needs.”

Data from Baltimore’s planning department in 2019 showed about 60% of Pigtown residents were African American, with white residents as the next-largest racial demographic. Hispanic residents make up less than 10% of Pigtown residents. The median household income in 2019 was $58,496.

The arts are a throughline of promoting and fundraising for Pigtown Climbs. They hosted a virtual night of music with Baltimore-based artists such as Forever Ago, Aliyah Caldwell, and Ari and the Buffalo Kings.

Community artist and educator Jaz Erenberg designed a logo and T-shirts for Pigtown Climbs. Her art addresses issues ranging from education to homelessness.

“The color palettes that I use and how bright and saturated they are speaks to being unapologetically Black or as an Afro Latina Jewish woman, any of those minorities,” Erenberg said.

Jaz Erenberg, an Afro Latina Jewish artist and educator, designed logos and T-shirts for Pigtown Climbs.
Jaz Erenberg, an Afro Latina Jewish artist and educator, designed logos and T-shirts for Pigtown Climbs. (Jaz Erenberg/Handout)

There is much to do before the communal climbing space is ready.

The goal is to raise $350,000 to $500,000. So far, they have about $60,000, Horne said.

Site surveys and lot preparation, such as testing the soil to withstand the weight of a climbing wall, and leveling the lot to make it wheelchair-accessible, are taking place.

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Padro says Pigtown Climbs will teach not only climbing, but also outdoor survival and how to go camping. Ultimately, it will not just be a plot of land, but also a meeting point for field trips, where city kids can head out to hike and explore Baltimore and Maryland.

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“The outdoors is something that BIPOC communities had a really deep connection with in our history, but got disconnected with at some point during our existence,” Horne said.

Stephanie Garcia is a 2021-22 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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