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East Baltimore community center recovers from fire: 'We ain’t going to miss a beat'

The Rose Street Community Center suffered extensive water damage and damage to the roof, doors and windows from a fire at the vacant building next to the center. It will take months of work before the building can be used, but Clayton Guyton founder of the center, plans to run the center's programs temporarily from the adjacent row house at 819 N. Rose Street. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

For the second time in 20 years, a fire burned the Rose Street Community Center’s home in East Baltimore.

And again, the nonprofit is demonstrating what it has preached through the drug wars and violence, through poverty and unrelenting personal loss: In the darkest of times, you simply keep moving.

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“You have to show your community how to respond to a disaster,” Clayton Guyton, the center’s co-founder, said Sunday. “You can’t just get upset.”

Officials said the cause of the Saturday night fire is under investigation.

Guyton was sanguine Sunday morning as he watched his family and volunteers sweep charred and damp debris into trash bag after trash bag and pile them up in front of the center.

The center is not insured. Guyton shrugged.

“Pain has a way of being absorbed by those who care about you,” he said.

Guyton’s counsel has been sought by Baltimore mayors for nearly two decades, and his work has been awarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from national foundations.

He spent a summer in the late 1990s standing sentinel each night with three armed companions to reclaim the 800 block of Rose Street from drug dealers.

The center has launched a homeless shelter for young people, taught art courses to children, housed young mothers and taught ex-offenders how to get jobs.

“We are all-encompassing,” he said. “We do what the community needs us to do.”

On Sunday, the half-dozen volunteers he had scheduled to clean neighborhood streets and alleyways were dispatched to an 8 a.m. fire cleanup instead.

The neighboring rowhouse at 823 Rose St. went up in flames Saturday night. That vacant rowhouse had been the center’s original home in the late 1990s, until an arsonist hit it, according to Baltimore Sun archives.

Guyton and his co-founder had moved into the boarded-up vacant at 821 Rose St. and rehabilitated it. They eventually did the same to the rowhouse at 819 Rose St., too.

But 823 Rose St., which fire officials classified as an arson in 1998, remained vacant. Kids used its porch as shelter from biting winds, neighbors said. Saturday night’s fire started there, and the damage extended to the center’s current home. State property records value each home at less than $25,000.

No humans were injured in the fire Saturday. A Betta fish named Moon was found dead in his tank Sunday morning.

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“I’m just so glad no one was hurt, with all the people dying in fires lately,” said Henry Young, who lives eight doors down. “These streets can be loaded with young kids out here.”

More people have died in fires this year in Baltimore than in any of the past five years. The tally includes a mother and her two daughters, 4 and 5 years old, who were killed in a house fire last week.

A fire damaged a vacant building next to the Rose Street Community Center in East Baltimore Saturday.

Inside the center’s main office at 821 Rose St. Sunday morning, Guyton’s daughter Letonya “Nickey” Buchanan was live-streaming her fire damage assessment on Facebook, narrating the grim circumstances and promising what the Rose Street Community Center has always promised to the beleaguered East Baltimore community it serves.

“We ain’t going to miss a beat,” she said. “We will operate even if we have to stand in the street. Rose Street will always stay open. We will never slow down.”

What used to be the rowhouse’s ceiling was now mostly damp dust, scattered on the glass tables where mayors had once strategized antiviolence plans with the center’s founders.

Volunteers had used these tables to prepare East Baltimore for GEDs. Former gang members had gathered around them to persuade young men to take a different path.

Young mothers, ex-offenders, politicians and clergy had all come through the Rose Street Community Center for help, and now light streamed through the holes firefighters punched in the roof while trying to extinguish the fire next door.

Buchanan looked up through the punctured ceiling.

“It smells like burnt hot dogs,” she said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t snow.”

Outside, in near freezing temperatures, Garrett Boyd, 49, climbed into the beat-up white pickup in which Guyton had been keeping warm and gobbling down breakfast in between supervising the volunteers.

Boyd had just come from his night shift at the port of Baltimore, a job Guyton had helped him get after what Boyd said was an 18-year period in and out of prison. State records confirm Boyd’s record stretches to 1987.

Guyton helped Boyd get an ID and learn to navigate his options outside prison, Boyd said, and Guyton enlisted him to run a neighborhood cookout each year.

“I used to have a bad past, thugging,” Boyd said. “He showed me a better way. … [The fire is] another disaster, but he can come up out of it. He always does.”

Baltimore has experienced more fatal fires in 2017 than at any point in the past five years, and is nearing the end of one of the worst years on record for fire deaths. Here's where they all occurred.

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