The West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester is used to visits from the high and mighty: the mayor, the governor, Cabinet secretaries, even former and future presidents.
But Sandtown was visited yesterday by those who knew it when and those who know it best -- 4,000 former and current residents who gathered for the 16th annual Sandtown reunion.
Some remembered a community that could be a model for the Sandtown that the city, the Enterprise Foundation and residents vTC are trying to redevelop in a "neighborhood transformation project" that has received national attention.
Former residents said Sandtown -- now facing a catalog of ills including joblessness, decaying housing and drug-related violence -- was once a place where many families owned their homes, had steady work, went to church on Sundays and cared for the neighbors' children as if they were their own.
"Everybody's mother was everybody's mother," said Regina Carroll, president of the Committee United to Save Sandtown Inc., which organizes the reunion.
The reunion began with a noon service at Ames Memorial United Methodist Church and continued last night with a dance at the 5th Regiment Armory.
The event grew out of a family reunion in 1978 that drew more than 300 old neighbors and friends to North Mount Street. Sandtown, a community of about 10,000 residents, is bounded by North Avenue on the north, Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues on the east, Lafayette Avenue on the south and North Monroe Street on the west.
The annual reunion has become so successful that the proceeds pay for about a dozen $1,000 college scholarships every year, winter jackets and shoes for needy children at Sandtown schools, a Thanksgiving feast for senior citizens and other programs.
Joe Studivant, 23, a four-time scholarship winner and graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina, was among those who thanked the group yesterday. He has returned to West Baltimore as a youth worker at the nearby Lafayette Square Community Center.
"So often the ills and blight of our community are spread by the media. I challenge you to celebrate goodness," Mr. Studivant said.
The reunion honored Mazzie Byrd Johnson, a Sandtown native and an active member of New Psalmist Baptist Church for six decades, for service to the community. The group applauded Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who stopped by to proclaim Sandtown Reunion Day. But mostly it was a day for old friends and neighbors to reminisce.
Harry H. Jones, a racetrack bartender and former postal worker who grew up on Riggs Avenue where the Western District police station now stands, recalled playing basketball at the old Hillock playground within whiffing distance of nearby stables.
Ms. Carroll, who has moved back to her mother's old house in Sandtown, remembered roller-skating at a Pennsylvania Avenue arena and buying potato chips for 2 or 3 cents a bag from a Laurens Street outlet.
Darlene Holland of Randallstown said she was one of five children raised successfully in Sandtown by a single mother -- and neighbors.
"If you did something wrong, even if our big sister didn't tell, the next-door neighbor told," she said. "She would spank your tail, and when mama came home, you'd get spanked again."
The Rev. William E. Johnson Sr., now a Dundalk area pastor, said, "There was something about being a Sandtowner. You had extended family, people who cared for you, from the street cleaner to the highest official. We had parenting from every adult in the community."
Mr. Johnson, who has reared five college graduates, including three ministers, said he "wouldn't have been able to do it without the roots of Sandtown. I'm proud of being from Sandtown."