From a little stand framed by red shutters set in the squalor of a West Baltimore neighborhood, Benny Joyner peddles candy, snowballs and hope in a place where little seems to exist.
Bordered by flower gardens and hand-painted messages of inspiration, his stand is an oasis in the middle of desperation. On one side is a small ghost town of abandoned rowhouses. On the other, a corridor of street corners controlled by crack dealers.
After 20 years in this neighborhood on the northern edge of Sand town-Winchester, Mr. Joyner is still trying to make a difference in the lives of his neighbors and their children with his stand and flowers in the 1500 block of Baker St.
"It sends a message that someone is trying," says Mr. Joyner, 58, whose quick smile and soft eyes are shaded by a red baseball cap. "I had the ability to do this, but I didn't have the knowledge. It tells people, if you have ability, knowledge will follow."
It's an important message in a place where many role models pack pistols and carry thick rolls of fast cash. Mr. Joyner's stand has become a magnet for kids in the neighborhood, where some streets are beginning to look more like Bosnia than West Baltimore.
"It's better over here," says Tim Scott Jr., 8, who stopped by Tuesday afternoon to borrow a bicycle pump from Mr. Joyner. Why is it better? Tim stops filling the tire of his Huffy bike and looks up.
"I feel safe here," he says.
Most children look up to the man they call "Mr. Benny."
"He gives hope to the young black youth in this neighborhood," says Wayne Johnson, 26, who strolled over from his West Lanvale Street home to buy candy. "He tells them it's not just about drugs. It's inspiring to the kids. He gives them a sense of direction."
Mr. Joyner has seen plenty of changes since he moved into the neighborhood two decades ago. When he moved here, well-kept brick rowhouses graced the streets. Parents raised families with few fears. "You could sit outside at night," he says.
Not anymore. "In the last five years, I've been afraid," he says. "The drugs. The madness."
People fled. Drug dealers and gunfire took over. Vacant rowhouses became drug dens. In 1976, the city tore down some houses in the neighborhood. That left a vacant lot behind Mr. Joyner's home -- a lot that became an unsanctioned city dump.
"The rats back there were big as opossums," he says.
Fed up, he "adopted" the 74-by-52-foot lot two years later under a city program. He and a neighbor, the Rev. James Yuille, cleaned it up, planting flowers and trees. In 1991, Mr. Joyner decided to build a snowball stand for his granddaughters.
When he lost his masonry job that year, the stand became a family business.
Now it's also a meeting place for the neighborhood. The lot is a field of green in the middle of gray. There is a peach tree, a maple, a few pines. There are tulips and daffodils, roses and collard cabbage flowers.
Over one flower bed is a painting of a rainbow and a photo of the wide-eyed creature from the movie "E. T." A sign above says: "Benny's TLC" -- for tender, loving care.
At night, the sign lights up. At Christmastime, he sets up a small manger scene near the sidewalk and strings lights on the trees.
The tiny stand, painted antique white, is a child's paradise. Inside are Giant Pixy Stix and 10-cent gumballs, Charleston Chews and Kit Kats. And soon there will be snowballs. As many as 400 a day by summer. He has 32 flavors. The most popular: egg custard.
Despite the brisk business, Mr. Joyner says he's never been held up. Someone slipped a hand into his makeshift register -- a
refrigerator vegetable drawer he keeps beneath the counter -- and made off with $10. Another time, someone stole a few containers of juice.
But that's been it in four years -- in one of the tougher neighborhoods in town.
"You've got to treat people with respect," he explains. "I don't need anything to protect me out here. I don't need a gun. I treat people the way I want to be treated myself."
Jeterria Toulson, 10, steps up to Mr. Joyner's stand on her way home from school and buys a bottle of juice. She continues to make the trip to Baker Street, even though there's a store much closer to her home.
"This is the nicest place in the neighborhood," she explains.
Mr. Joyner says he hopes the rest of the neighborhood turns around one day. There are plans to raze the entire 1500 block of Leslie St. and build 26 rowhouses. For now, his snowball stand will have to do.
"People drive by. They turn around and they stop, and I hear them say, 'It's so beautiful. It's an oasis,' " Mr. Joyner says. "Some people even say they think this is paradise. I figure paradise will probably look a little better than this. But it's the compliments. That's what keeps me going."