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Charlestown residents show support for Sandtown at block party

On a brilliant spring day, 28 residents of the Charlestown retirement community boarded a bus bound for one of Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods.

They had heard about a block party in Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray had lived, and they wanted to attend.

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The ninth annual Boundary Block Party took place in a park surrounded by boarded-up and abandoned row houses. Charlestown and Sandtown residents watched children sing and dance at the April 16 event.

They joined in long snaking lines for a hot dog or face painting. They picked out oranges from a produce stand or browsed at the local Jubilee Arts Center crafts booth. They chatted with neighbors and members of local advocacy groups who set up booths along the perimeter of Pennsylvania Triangle Park.

They looked for Elder C.W. Harris, a local activist who had set himself up on the roof of the Jubilee Arts Center across the street, vowing not to come down until 500 people had registered to vote in the Maryland primary. They shook hands with candidates for mayor and City Council.

"With a lot of people working together, it can make a difference," said Charlestown resident Phyl Lansing.

Some Charlestown residents wore shirts from a Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) forum. All of them wore their Charlestown name tags.

"We wanted to let them know we care and support them," said Joanne Wer, a Charlestown resident since December.

Lansing literally gave someone the shirt off her back. Someone admired the bright blue and green BUILD shirt she wore over a white blouse, she said, so she took it off and gave it to her.

Some Charlestown residents were already familiar with the neighborhood. Leslie Graef said he had worked on 150 houses there for Habitat for Humanity.

Evelyn Stokes taught kindergarten through third grade in an area public school.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," said Francine Ashby, a three-year resident of Charlestown. "I am interested in the development of black neighborhoods."

She had hoped to assist with voter registration, but it was taking place right at the polls rather than at the park. So, she kept busy handing out voters' guides. Ashby also found time to get her face painted.

"I wanted to prove I was here," she said, showing off the pink heart on her cheek.

Lansing, a 13-year resident of Charlestown, said the community was touched by the events following the death of Gray, who lived in Sandtown, while in police custody after an arrest last April. The event sparked riots in Baltimore City, where some 500 Charlestown employees live.

Residents gathered to discuss how they could help.

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"We wanted to support them," Lansing said.

The Charlestown Residents' Council and Legislative/Political Committee heard Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz report on the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's regional plan for sustainable development which was given to the city upheaval last April. Some 200 residents attended, according to Mel Tansill, a spokesman at Charlestown.

"We may be out in the county but we're concerned about the city, too," Lansing said.

After meeting "cute" at the inaugural Baltimore City Fair in 1970 and getting married two years later, John and Dawn Strumsky have built quite a life together as they approach their 44th year of wedded bliss.

Their desire to help turned to action in January when a new organization formed to help Sandtown residents. Residents were inspired at a meeting with Harris, founder of Intersection of Change, a nonprofit for the people of Sandtown, as well as representatives of other agencies helping in Sandtown, including BUILD, No Boundaries Coalition, Habitat for Humanity and New Song Academy. About 100 residents attended, according to Lansing.

"We wanted them to tell us what they needed and wanted," Wer said.

Several subcommittees have since been formed to focus on topics such as education, funding, housing and advocacy.

Spurred by what they heard, residents followed the General Assembly session and wrote letters to the legislature to promote issues to help Sandtown residents, said William "Ted" Durr, a retired Presbyterian minister active in the civil rights movement with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr.

In addition, 19 residents attended BUILD's forum for Baltimore City mayoral candidates in March.

Gwen Brown, an organizer with BUILD, was on the corner April 16 to say goodbye as the Charlestown group prepared to return to Catonsville.

"They've done incredible work with us," she said as the bus pulled away. "They've reached out with us and asked, 'How can we help?'"

Their work isn't done, Brown noted. Charlestown residents have been asked to call voters to encourage them to get to the polls on primary day, April 26. "They've been a huge help," she said.

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