A dream fulfilled in O'Donnell Heights


This is a story about the building of a playground.

Not the large playground completed this year by thousands of volunteers as part of the redevelopment of the old Memorial Stadium site.

And not the high-tech, six-figure playground planned for a prominent corner of historic Mount Vernon.

No, this is a story about the building of a much more modest facility in the O'Donnell Heights public housing complex, near the entrance to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway in the isolated southeast corner of the city.

As such, it is partly a story of two Baltimores, one reveling in the spotlight of redevelopment, the other far removed from it.

It is also a story of the realization of a dream of a deceased O'Donnell Heights resident; the determination of a Boy Scout who happens to be the son of a former city councilman; the philanthropy of a businessman; and the ultimate disappointment of a community leader.

The story begins with Lawrence Fowlkes, an O'Donnell Heights resident who died of a stroke in January and whose name adorns a temporary sign at the playground.

Built in the 1940s for wartime workers and then used as public housing, O'Donnell Heights is the kind of place that has made headlines for all the wrong reasons: the 1999 federal drug trial of a gang called the Nickel Boys that flourished in the warren of alleys within the sprawling complex; the 2002 discovery of the emaciated body of Ciara Jobes.

The complex, neatly kept but with dozens of boarded and bricked-up apartments, had a couple of basketball courts, a swimming pool and a PAL center that drew dozens of kids. Until this month, however, it had no playground.

Fowlkes "had been hammering us to do something for a long time," said Elizabeth Weiblen, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. "He said, 'The children really need a place to play. They're playing on dumpsters.'"

Meanwhile, John Korfiatis, president of Blastech Enterprises in nearby Holabird Park, had told city officials that he wanted to help kids in the neighborhood. He wound up getting his company and a handful of others to agree to foot the $17,500 bill for the equipment.

Enter Alex Ambridge, the son of former City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who will be a senior at Towson High School in the fall. A Boy Scout looking for a project to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, Alex asked Mayor Martin O'Malley at a chance encounter with his father for his suggestions. "We need playgrounds," he remembers the mayor saying.

Alex contacted the Office of Neighborhoods, participated in a planning meeting with city officials and, two Saturdays ago, arrived with about two dozen other volunteers from his Scout troop to help city workers assemble the equipment.

Today, the playground - with climbing bars, slides and poles on a thick bed of mulch, surrounded by a trio of newly planted saplings - is as much an oasis as a play station. Two boarded apartments frame the site, which sits next to a pair of worn basketball courts and a patch of asphalt.

On a recent weekday, two children from the complex were climbing on the equipment, which one pointed out, already had one wobbly railing.

"I come out a lot," said Rashad Collins, 13.

"It's fun," said Derek Richardson, 7.

Alex Ambridge, who acknowledged that he was unaware of O'Donnell Heights before he started working on the playground and pronounced it "kind of depressing," said, "It felt good afterwards to see I helped out the community. I feel like I have made an impact."

Ella Broadway, head of O'Donnell Heights' tenant council, is careful not to sound ungrateful.

"When they finished putting up the playground equipment and the children got on it, it was a nice sight to see," she said. "It's good equipment, don't get me wrong."

But she doesn't mask her feeling that she expected more to be done, including intensive cleaning of the area around the playground and additional equipment.

"We got the playground equipment," she said. "No swings. We're supposed to get little tables around and little benches that the parents could sit on and watch the children."

Weiblen has heard the complaints directly and thinks they're unfair.

"I'd like the tenant council to be more pleased with what has gotten done so far with private dollars," she said.

Within the next week, she said, the city will put up Jersey barriers to reduce traffic around the playground. By the end of the summer, she hopes to have the money to put in the benches, and by next spring, she said, the city hopes to have the $20,000 to $30,000 it needs to redo the basketball courts.

"This is just the first step," she said. "Instead of waiting to do the full project, we wanted to get something up and running for the kids."

In other words, the story of this playground is still unfolding.

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