After the fire, Kintira Barbour knew something had to be done.
After the news cameras disappeared, and the three burnt rowhouses were demolished, an empty lot remained on the corner of South Stricker and West Pratt streets — the site of one of the deadliest blazes for first responders in Baltimore history.
And so, the Mount Clare Community Council, which Barbour leads as president, worked throughout the past year to transform the space into a community garden, complete with saplings, shrubs and neatly landscaped walkways.
The community group was intent on keeping the lot from becoming overgrown with grass and weeds, or becoming an illegal dumping ground, Barbour said.
But what’s more, the gaping hole where the three rowhouses once stood served as a painful reminder of that tragic late January day last year that claimed the lives of Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo.
“It’s not just a space,” Barbour said. “It’s that reminder of the hardships and the challenges we face.”
And in a low-income community like Mount Clare, those reminders already are painfully abundant, she said. In the makeshift memorials, such as teddy bears hanging from telephone poles. In the vacant homes with boards covering the windows and the doors.
The community council completed the garden with a grant from the Southwest Partnership, which acquires and then distributes funding for community projects in seven Baltimore neighborhoods, including Mount Clare, said Elizabeth Weber, the nonprofit’s acting executive director.
“This is definitely a project that our reviewers felt strongly about wanting to make sure the need to have something at that site was honored as soon as possible,” Weber said.
Over the last few years, the Mount Clare Community Council has made over several vacant lots with community gardens, Barbour said. Often the site of demolished rowhouses ruined by fire, the community gardens have become popular among neighbors, Barbour said.
“In the spring and summer when the produce starts to grow, it’s not uncommon that you would ride by and see people picking their tomatoes or their squash,” Barbour said.
Though many of the lots are privately owned, the community council has taken the initiative to maintain them.
After tragedy strikes and a rowhome is demolished, if the lot is not cared for, the community council starts by filing 311 complaints with the city. Then, council members will reach out to property owners to ask for permission to use the space as a community garden. If they hear nothing back, they’ll start maintaining the lot, and sometimes place garden beds and other items on the site, Barbour said.
That’s what happened with the Stricker Street lot, she said.
“At the end of it all were left with the mess to clean up,” she said. “When the attention is gone — the media is gone ―we have to live here.”
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The Stricker Street property owners could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
A nonprofit formed by the Baltimore fire officers union also considered placing a permanent memorial on the Stricker Street site, said Josh Fannon, president of IAFF Local 964. But reaching out to the owners of the three lots has yielded no results, he said.
In the meantime, he is glad the community is maintaining the area, he said.
“It’s very nice to see the community association treating it as the hallowed ground that it is,” Fannon said. “Some of the family visits the site very frequently, and they are happy to see that it’s not being treated as a rubble pile.”
At the front of the lot, three memorial wreaths still stand, adorned with the names of the fallen firefighters and covered in bouquets of flowers. But now, behind them stands a trellis draped in string lights, freshly planted trees, and a path lined with gravel.
Barbour said she’s exploring placing a mural on the wall of the home beside the garden. But the garden itself is nearly complete.
“It’s an expression of love,” she said.