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Game day turns from woe to wealth

The Baltimore Sun

By 11 a.m., they started coming, a crush of purple-clad fans descending, but for a moment, on the tiny neighborhood of Sharp-Leadenhall as they made their way toward the beckoning stadium.

The residents here are accustomed to this, used to the strangers who invade their park and streets every Sunday, come football season.

Fans from across the city and state - and even out-of-state - pour in from all sides on their way to M&T; Bank Stadium, a sports facility that has been their neighbor for years, but one many residents have never visited.

Now Sharp-Leadenhall residents are making the most of the weekly invasion, partnering with M&T; Bank to turn the crowds and traffic into dollar signs, money they can use to spruce up the drab park around them and begin an after-school program.

"Half-and-half, lemonade," holler a group of neighborhood kids selling a beverage made of iced tea and lemonade.

"Hot dogs, burgers, help me clean my park," yells a man at the tent next door, where he grills a heap of hot dogs.

By noon yesterday, football fans were lined up, willing to dole out a dollar or two for food to fuel them on their way.

"In the beginning, we were not really happy. We were prisoners in our own homes, or we couldn't even get in them," said Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee Inc., referring to traffic - foot and otherwise - created by Ravens game days.

"Now we're sort of taking advantage of the inconvenience," she said. "It does kind of lessen the impact of having two sports stadiums in your backyard," Bland-Thomas added, referring to nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles.

Yesterday, Bland-Thomas was joined by community members, M&T; Bank employees and residents of a local drug addiction recovery house as they furiously grilled meat, hauled bags of ice and stuffed peanuts into plastic bags.

The price, for many, was just right. Four dollars for a hamburger, an extra dollar got you chips and a soda. Just two dollars for a hot dog. One buck for a glass of lemonade or a half-and-half. And two dollars for a bag of peanuts.

"It's cheaper than inside," said Chuck Pyne, 45. "They said it was going toward the community - that's what we want to hear."

The money, Bland-Thomas said, will go toward making improvements to Solo Gibbs Park, which the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail runs through. The community group wants to beautify the park with landscaping and other improvements. Funds raised will also go toward sponsoring an after-school youth program through the Police Athletic League.

Philip Hosmer, vice president of corporate communications for M&T; Bank, was on hand yesterday, along with other volunteers from the company.

Hosmer said M&T; Bank President Atwood "Woody" Collins III and Bland-Thomas met when they were on Mayor Sheila Dixon's transition committee.

They decided to partner on the Ravens stand initiative. The bank kicked in a $5,000 grant, which got the community grilling equipment, insurance and permits for the stand, as well as T-shirts and about 30 signs that are now posted saying "Historic Sharp-Leadenhall."

"We're neighbors," said Hosmer. "This just made a lot of sense. We wanted to reach out in the spirit of being a good neighbor."

Hosmer said bank volunteers have worked as consultants, helping residents with the planning and financing of the stand. Eventually, they say, they hope to leave it completely in residents' hands but plan to continue to partner on things such as financial literacy and homebuying workshops.

"This is a very historic community in Baltimore," said Hosmer. "It's important that we keep it as a vibrant neighborhood."

Established by freed slaves and German immigrants in the late 1700s, Sharp-Leadenhall is one of the city's oldest black communities and was once an abolitionist hub.

After the Civil War, as many as 4,200 African-Americans lived in the area. The community lost thousands of people in the late 1960s, when hundreds of homes were razed for a highway expansion project that never took place.

Now about 700 to 800 people, mostly African-Americans, call the 10-block neighborhood home, a community that is surrounded by upscale, gentrified areas such as Federal Hill and Otterbein.

Community residents are working to preserve affordable housing and avoid development they fear could drive away longtime residents.

At the stand's kickoff last weekend, the group raised nearly $2,000 in one long day. Yesterday the crowds seemed a bit thinner, but the lines were steady until the Ravens' game against the Arizona Cardinals began at 1 p.m.

Still, there were no signs of closing the food stand down. Residents would remain until after the game ended and the final stray customer came through.

For the kids, the idea of working to raise money for their community resulted in visions of trips to Skateland in Towson. Trips to a laser tag complex. Lights in the park so they can play basketball at night. A football field. A stadium dome.

"I want to help out the park and sell stuff and get more things we can do," said Malik Rodriguez, 10.

"I want to help out the community, and I want to help us," added James Stewart, 10.

The kids said they wanted things to do, things to keep them out of trouble. "Too many people sell drugs here," said James, shaking his head.

A man came over to the stand offering to sell the children game tickets for $55, face value. They tried to get him to bring down his price, offering $15, maybe $25, but the man refused to go below $40.

"If you don't sell them, can I have them for free?" pleaded one of the children.

No sale, and so it was back to business, back to work so they can get those lights on the basketball court, and trips to Skateland, and hope for a day when they don't have to worry about drug dealers, and maybe even get inside the stadium they now glimpse from afar.

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