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A park emerges from the weeds

The Baltimore Sun

Gardening gloves, hedge clippers, hoes and rakes were in abundance. And so were the volunteers who gathered yesterday at a small Federal Hill park for the second consecutive day of sprucing up the neglected landscape.

Robert Baker Park, a small, grassy rectangle surrounded by a 4-feet-high brick wall at Light Street and Key Highway, is "like a jungle," said Kathie McCleskey, the beautification committee chairwoman of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.

She had joined with the youth ministry from a church in Delaware to clean the park, overgrown with weeds, vines and bushes.

"It's a very sweet, very charming little park, and nobody knows it's there," McCleskey said. "It sort of looks neglected from the inside and from the outside. It's the gateway to Federal Hill, so really, it ought to look a lot better. It's just a lovely little park. Why hasn't anyone taken care of it?"

The park is not listed on the Department of Recreation and Parks' Internet site, and it is not on most city maps. The people cleaning it up say it has been forgotten, even though it is at the gateway to one of the city's sought-after neighborhoods.

Even the man the park is named after is a bit of a mystery. A plaque on the interior of the brick wall of the park shows a profile shot of a man in black stone, and says simply, "Robert Lewis Baker, 1937-1979."

According to several Sun articles, Baker was a professor of horticulture in the University of Maryland system and was considered an expert on urban gardens. He published a book, A Small City Garden, and traveled in Europe and Asia.

He lived on Warren Street for 11 years and was president of the Federal Hill Preservation Society. The native Baltimorean and City College graduate died at age 42. In the early 1990s, a gardening lecture series was named after him at the Bryn Mawr School, and a $5,000 scholarship in his name still exists.

Yesterday, Baker's park was full of invasive weeds, including wild Scottish thistle and morning glories that snaked 20 feet high along the brick wall at the rear of the park, which abuts rowhouses in the 100 block of E. Montgomery St.

Walt Saxon, who lives in a rowhouse there, hoisted six plastic chairs from his backyard, so volunteers could sit yesterday. He joined in the cleanup, pulling weeds. Later, a plastic blue tent was put up for shade.

"I ride my bike here quite a bit, and a lot of dog walkers use it, and the homeless sleep here and leave beer bottles and stuff and get into fights," Saxon said. "So the purpose of cleaning it up is so the police can come in here and patrol."

Before work began yesterday, the group from the Ogletown Baptist Church in Ogletown, Del., joined hands in a circle to pray. As they worked, "Our God Reigns," by Brandon Heath, played on a small radio.

A Federal Hill congregation called the Church at Warren Avenue, formerly the Lee Street Memorial Baptist Church, urged the Delaware group to help through the Baptist Convention of Delaware Maryland.

"The pastor at Warren Avenue Baptist Church said, 'Hey, we got this park, and if we clean it up the city will let us use it,'" said Teresa Spade.

Spade's son, Cory Spade, 9, pushed an edger and shouted, "Where should I put it, Dad?"

They are pulling weeds and vines in an attempt to again make the park a usable space. On Monday, another group of youths from a church in Bethel, Conn., is to join the effort.

Volunteers were hoping the city would come through with a a wide mower to cut back an approximately 20-foot-high wall of overgrown bushes and weeds that has encroached on the park's small walking path.

"We must have hauled 40 bags out of here yesterday," Saxon said. "It was brutal work. Luckily, we had a nice breeze coming in. It's a virtual mess. It's almost like, 'Where do you begin?' You have to just have at it."

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