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‘A bit of a haven’: Southwest Baltimore church reclaims a dying urban forest and creates a community oasis

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For years, the 10-acre stretch of land along Frederick Road in Southwest Baltimore was easy to drive by, considered nothing more than “the woods.”

A hundred sick and dying ash trees and long tangles of invasive thick vines covered the hilly, brown patch. Kids used it as a cut-through; others dumped trash or tires there. The land’s owner, Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, tried more than once to sell the plot.

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No one wanted it.

But Pastor Michael S. Martin, the parish’s leader, saw something else in that land: an opportunity to worship, to study and to reclaim the neglected green space that was once a thriving urban forest.

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In an effort that began two summers ago, worshippers, environmentalists, neighbors and students have come together in a rare collaboration involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The volunteers cut down dead trees and hauled away loads of branches and logs. In a newly created tree nursery, they’ve potted 1,100 poplar and willow saplings nicknamed “Baby Groots.” All of this labor will bear life as they re-imagine their patch of land as a peace park and work to make their campus more sustainable.

“I don’t know how to change the country. I don’t know how to change the world. But I do know how to have an impact in my neighborhood where my parish is,” said Martin, who has led the Christian, mostly Black church since 2017.

The goal is to plant about 3,000 trees on the land, ultimately repopulating the urban forest and creating an oasis with trails, meditation stations, an amphitheater and vegetable gardens. Stillmeadow PeacePark, as they call it, will be a place to help people who aren’t familiar with the outdoors — including many of the churchgoers — connect with nature.

Stillmeadow PeacePark is a 10-acre project to restore an urban forest in West Baltimore. A church has teamed up with various partners to plant 3,000 trees and build walking paths, meditation stations and an apiary to produce honey. Cisterns and rainwater barrels have been installed next to the church to water newly planted fruit trees along Frederick Road and help reduce neighborhood flooding during storms. (Baltimore Sun | SOURCES: Steedman Jenkins, Greivin Ulate, USDA Forest Service, OpenStreetMap)

Over time, as the saplings grow, and with the help of other additions such as cisterns, rain barrels and solar panels, this piece of Baltimore in the Irvington area will become more resilient to weather events such as flooding.

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“We need to use what we have to be a blessing to other people,” said Yorell Tuck, who grew up attending the 32-year-old church and is now director of operations for Stillmeadow Community Projects.

The Stillmeadow PeaceProject could be a model for neighborhoods here and around the country, experts say, as majority Black communities reckon with the environmental damage of policies like segregation and redlining that left them with more pollutants and less tree cover. According to the Forest Service, the presence and health of forests in cities is key to the resilience of communities and ecosystems.

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Studies have proven the many benefits of a tree canopy to a city, from less asthma to better water quality and reduced flooding. Areas with fewer trees, scientists say, expose residents to higher temperatures, and, in the case of the Stillmeadow area, severe flooding.

“You need to get to the history before you can get to the future,” said Morgan Grove, a Forest Service research scientist, which is providing $90,000a year for the next three years toward the effort.

The partnership is one of two sites in the country where the agency is working to develop best practices to support healthy forests and communities threatened by stresses like invasive plants, vines, deer and the emerald ash borer. The voracious Asian beetle feeds on ash trees, taking away water and nutrients and killing the trees within a year. In the park, roughly 40 of the estimated 100 infected ash trees have been taken down so far.

Morgan Grove of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service looks at dead trees that will be cleared from the site of the Stillmeadow PeacePark Project in Southwest Baltimore. The project is a partnership between Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, the Forest Service, and other groups who are working to restore the ecosystem of the 10-acre forest. January 22, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Grove estimates their plans for the urban forest will take about 30 years to complete. And it will become a model.

“If it works in Baltimore, it can work in Detroit,” Grove said. “What’s cool about it is that it has the enthusiasm of the congregation, expertise of local nonprofits and universities as well as connections with the students.”

Organizations that have joined the Stillmeadow work include Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore Green Space and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. Students from Morgan State University, Coppin State University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Delaware are also sweating on the hills to help plant a new, healthier forest.

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Mark Cameron, the senior chief of watershed planning and partnerships at the city’s Department of Public Works, has been helping with flood mitigation to reduce stormwater runoff in the area, a part of the Gwynns Falls Watershed . He said officials are looking at other neighborhoods in the city where they can do similar work.

“It’s helping to create a bit of a haven. This is an important location,” he added.

Already, the church had developed into a neighborhood anchor. The parish served as a cooling center during a 2017 heat wave and as the go-to recovery spot after a 2018 storm that flooded the community. In that crisis, more than 7 feet of water rushed along Frederick Avenue. Boats were needed to rescue passengers on a city bus, and roughly 150 homes were destroyed. Members from rescue organizations including Red Cross and Team Rubicon were housed at the Stillmeadow church for two weeks.

Stillmeadow is now designated a Community Resiliency Hub Partner. Baltimore is among the first cities in the nation to roll out “resiliency hubs,” places that help low- and middle-income communities with supports like drinking water and battery power in climate-related emergencies.

“There is really no limit of what they’re capable of doing for their community,” Aubrey Germ, the climate and resilience planner for the city’s Office of Sustainability, said of the Stillmeadow community. “They have a very strong vision and are pushing the bounds of what types of support and programs will be beneficial to their most vulnerable neighbors, not only in crisis situations but also in everyday living.”

So far, workers have installed rain barrels and cisterns behind the church that can collect 600 gallons of water that will be used to water the saplings. They’ve established an apiary and sold their own honey at Christmastime and planted a line of young apple and pear trees along Frederick Road, so people walking on the sidewalk can reach up and pick fruit.

McKay Jenkins, a nonfiction author and professor of English, journalism and environmental humanities at the University of Delaware, volunteers at Stillmeadow each Saturday, often bringing at least 10 of his students to help clear out the forest and learn about environmental injustice.

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He believes that residents who live in urban areas have a harder time connecting with the green spaces around them.

“There is a notion that is where bodies are dumped and where violence happens,” Jenkins said. “All human beings deserve to be surrounded by nature, not just concrete surrounded by trees.”

The church is sketching out ideas for installations they hope will bring healing, including a memorial for local veterans and a permanent marker for families who have lost relatives to violence. Martin, the pastor, also noted that people who haven’t been in nature can be afraid of what they don’t know, such as the different insects, birds and the raccoons, foxes and deer that live in the forest. He envisions Stillmeadow can be an outdoor classroom for children and adults.

Yorell Tuck examines the damage to a tree from a beetle infestation that has killed dozens of tall trees in a once-thriving urban forest in Southwest Baltimore. The Stillmeadow Community Fellowship has teamed up with several partners to restore the forest, create an urban oasis and make the area more resilient to severe weather. January 22, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Tuck still remembers the magical feeling of running through the wooded area and exploring the trails with her brothers when she was growing up in the church. She used to be scared in one spot, where they had to awkwardly shinny down a steep slope to get to a quiet part they called “the creek.”

Now, she’s reconnected with nature, and she walks the slope with confidence.

On a recent hike over the rough-hewed paths, she called out the different trees and plants by name. She can see all that is to come: Pews from the church will be moved into meditation stations; stumps and other natural materials will be used to create a playground; and the sunrise Easter service will be held outside, in a clearing.

“Our Earth is a gift from God,” Tuck said, “and you’re supposed to take care of the gifts God gave you.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 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 Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner

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