As she looked at the freshly painted benches and leafy new trees, Betty Bland-Thomas said she felt a little more alive.
"People need space," said the South Baltimore community leader, watching her neighborhood park receive a rapid facelift Saturday morning. "We can't always be surrounded by concrete. You need your bread and butter and running water, but you also need grass and trees to have real quality of life."
Bland-Thomas had an unlikely source to thank for the dose of green renewal. CSX Transportation is better known for loud metal trains and large industrial lots. But as part of a sweeping effort to improve relations with Baltimore, employees of the rail giant spent Saturday freshening up Solo Gibbs Park, the area of grass and athletic courts you pass if you walk along Hamburg Street to a Ravens or Orioles game.
City leaders had a contentious relationship with CSX after poor communications marred the response to a July 2001 fire in the Howard Street Tunnel. But both sides have worked to mend fences in recent years, and last month, they announced a multipronged agreement to improve safety in the tunnel.
CSX officials called Saturday's park rehabilitation in Sharp-Leadenhall another sign of the warmer relationship.
"Baltimore is such an important city for us," said Sharon Daboin, a community relations vice president for CSX. "And we want to show our appreciation for how much they put up with from us."
CSX brought together 125 volunteers, including employees, community members and a crew of midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy to slap new coats of red paint on benches, pull weeds from the ball field and replace dead trees with live ones.
They asked neighborhood children for input on a mural, which features a train representing CSX, a large Ravens logo and a portrait of Frederick Douglass, who once gave a speech under a tree in the historic park.
"I just like to see the community back together, enjoying each other," said Terry Garland, 26, who has lived in Sharp-Leadenhall his entire life.
"They've done more than I expected," said Bland-Thomas. "It would have taken us so long to do what they've done in one day."
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., and the largest rail operator in the eastern U.S, maintains an overall goal of planting one tree for every one of its 21,000 miles of track. The rail company crossed 30 off its list on Saturday, with volunteers planting redbuds, maples and oaks in the park and along Hamburg Street. CSX footed the bill for the trees and other supplies, which exceeded $5,000.
"I have no more strength in my right hand," said CSX claims worker Paul Janssen, who had planted eight trees despite beginning the day with a sore elbow.
Asked why he hadn't done something easier, like painting, Janssen said, "Painting is not manly. You don't get anything done just sitting around. I'll outwork all these Navy kids."