Painting a brighter future for Baltimore street corner

Not so long ago, a dilapidated house stood on the corner of Jenifer Avenue and 30th Street in Baltimore's Montebello community, a magnet for drug users and dealers. But now the house has been torn down, and a mural is planned that will fill the space "with color and joy," said Natalya Brusilovsky, the healthy neighborhoods coordinator for the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp., a nonprofit community association.

The mural is the brainchild of Gabrielle Elkaim, a 29-year-old Mount Vernon resident who works for the federal government and is taking a seminar through a program called Landmark Education that requires her to "create a project that inspires," she said.

Landmark Education, formerly known as EST, is best known for its Landmark Forums, which are "about transformation and uncovering some of the blind spots," said Elkaim, who travels to Alexandria, Va., on Tuesdays and Saturdays for the program. "It's about, how do you create the things you want for yourself, and what's been stopping you until now and how do you get that out of the way?"

Elkaim, born in the U.S. to an American mother and a Zimbabwean father, has lived in Zimbabwe and London, and earned a master's degree in health and demographics in London, she said. She moved to Baltimore in 2010.

Elkaim knew she wanted her project to be related to both health and the arts, and soon decided to raise funds for a mural that would bring color to a Baltimore neighborhood and celebrate healthful living. Her Writing on the Wall project is an initiative within the nonprofit Stand for Art Foundation, based in Alexandria, which supports healing through art.

She began looking for a muralist and chose Shawn James, who, by coincidence, lives in Montebello.

"It was serendipitous," said James, 38. He described the wall, which is about 8 feet by 10 feet, as "a perfect frame to put a picture there." He expects the work to take about three weeks. "It's going to be something to brighten up that corner," he said.

The community association, which had worked with the city of Baltimore to get the house torn down last winter, was already interested in beautifying the site.

"Now we have this empty lot on this beautiful corner, and you can see Lake Montebello from it," said Brusilovsky. "We are really lucky because Gabi contacted Shawn James. Shawn lives in our neighborhood. He knows we've been talking about this particular wall since the building was torn down," she said.

Elkaim has been holding fundraisers and working with the community to create the design.

"It was a slow process of putting things together," she said, adding that it was important for the community to like the plan and the design, which was tweaked based on community recommendations.

Earlier this month, the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corporation received a grant for the project from Healthy Neighborhoods, a Baltimore organization that works to improve communities through grants and partnerships.

Elkaim is hoping the mural will be completed by Nov. 3, when she plans to hold a health fair that will be open to the public. "I asked the community if they wanted a party or a health fair, and they said yes to a health fair," she said, adding that details of the event are not yet finalized.

"I think it's a wonderful project," said Mark Washington, executive director of CHMCC. "It fits nicely with the change that has occurred in the neighborhood."

The mural is part of a larger effort to improve the neighborhood. In addition, the vacant lot in front of the wall is expected to be transformed into a garden.

"What will spring from that [the changes] is sort of a symbol of rebirth of the neighborhood," said Washington. "It's a very small step, but the impact it has on the psyche of the residents is dramatic."