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Searching for hope in face of adversity

The Baltimore Sun

Rows of plump red tomatoes and crisp green beans have sprouted for more than a decade from the grounds of a West Baltimore alleyway that was once a haven for drug dealers, providing fresh organic produce to some of the city's less fortunate residents and instilling a sense of pride in a community where boarded-up rowhouses abound.

But as a stretch of homes in the area has been touched by revitalization - selling now for more than $300,000 - the community garden in its midst has once again become a dumping ground.

Just this week, somebody plopped down a big pile of junk - apparent vestiges of nearby house-gutting - in the middle of one of the "Gardens of Hope" in the 1200 block of Shields Place in Upton.

A brown house door, insulation resembling pink cotton candy and planks of wood and bricks were left piled high atop the green space where the planting for eggplant, zucchini and peas is set to begin in a few weeks.

"It breaks my heart," said Teresa M. Stephens, a master gardener who manages the site and lives in the neighborhood.

While some have pointed to contractors working to rehab homes under construction in the area, Stephens said there is no proof of who the culprits are because no one has been caught in the act. Stephens said she has good relationships with some of the contractors and doesn't want to make broad accusations.

But deep tire tracks in the garden are just feet away from a rehabbed rowhouse, now surrounded by a wooden fence. Part of the garden's chicken-wire fence was torn down after the vehicle apparently plowed its way through the garden, Stephens said. And a tree house, built by a group of youths high above the garden and overlooking the rowhouse, has been torn down.

"Contractors love to dump," said Gloria H. Luster, a veteran urban gardener who lives in Pimlico and founded the site in 1992. "They'll do it on any open space, and they don't care. They're using our garden for a dumping ground, which isn't unusual. They don't know what's there - don't care what's there."

A spokesman for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works said yesterday that the agency's environmental crimes unit is investigating.

Luster, 82, acquired the block-long stretch of grassy land through the city's Adopt-A-Block program, which leases the vacant lots on a yearly basis at no cost to groups who commit to using the land as green space or parkland. She began the urban gardens in 1987 on a Pimlico lot and has, for the last two years in Upton, donated 5,000 pounds of produce to area soup kitchen, food banks and shelters through a Virginia-based nonprofit group, "Plant A Row for the Hungry."

When the site first became a garden - which is now funded through a partnership with the Upton Planning Committee and the National Italian American Foundation - it needed major work. Old refrigerators, washing machines and garbage littered the area. The soil was toxic. Luster brought in 28 dump truck loads of leaf mold to prepare the soil.

"I've been in that garden when police came through with their guns drawn," Luster said. "That used to be drug heaven. People used to be afraid to walk through there. You wouldn't believe the difference that garden has made in this area."

Luster learned gardening from her grandfather in the backyard of his Caroline Street home in East Baltimore during the 1930s, where he also raised chickens. He warned her against using fertilizer, telling Luster: "Don't use that mess. It's not good for you. It will kill you." Instead, he taught her the fine art of composting.

"I'm an organic gardener," Luster said. "I don't use chemicals. You don't really need to use chemicals, fertilizer and stuff. You don't need to use chemicals if you treat your soil right. ... God doesn't use any Miracle-Gro.

In 1997, the NIAF partnered with Luster, and over the years it has provided funds for seeds, gardening tools, fencing and a sign to mark the area.

"My grandfather always had his garden," said John B. Salamone, the NIAF's national executive director, explaining the partnership. "My grandfather taught me how to grow tomatoes. Every Italian will tell you about their grandparents and their garden. Italian-Americans have arrived. We've done very well.

"So it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to keep giving to Italian-Americans. So the idea is to take something unique to the Italian-American experience and to turn it into a project that could help others in the inner city," Salamone said.

The garden has relied on neighborhood residents and volunteers that have included groups from the NIAF, as well as from the city's Union Memorial Baptist Church, Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion church and the Maryland Institute College of Art, to till the land and plant the seeds. And some homeless men in the area have benefited, earning a few dollars cutting grass and picking up trash.

While the dedication to the garden by many has inspired a sense of ownership in the neighborhood, the land has never been free from acts of vandalism. In November, someone swiped a $300 aluminum sign and cashed it in for a few bucks at a nearby scrap metal joint.

"It's always been a challenge for us," Salamone said. "It's not easy creating a garden in the middle of an area like that. We're constantly having to worry. But the alternative is to not do anything at all. But it's certainly a worthwhile thing for us.

"It's such a special project and we'd hate to give it up. And we're not going to, by the way. We're determined now more than ever."


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