For 20 years, Emma Worrell quietly tended the vacant lot next to her rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore's troubled Pen Lucy neighborhood, making sure unwieldy grass and weeds were trimmed and that trash disappeared. She also hung a sign with the names of youths killed in the surrounding streets, a memorial to victims of the area's once epidemic violence.
"We couldn't sit on our front porch for years," said Worrell, a retired city worker and a four-decade resident of Cator Avenue. "You never knew when they were going to break out shooting."
Yesterday, Worrell's determined insistence on civility, order and peace was rewarded at last, as a bulldozer - paid for by a coalition of interests, including Rebuilding Together Baltimore and a national television program - broke ground on a new park in the old vacant lot. Worrell, standing under a steady drizzle with Mayor Sheila Dixon and other officials, all brandishing ceremonial shovels, couldn't suppress a smile.
"This makes me feel good because the neighborhood is finally coming together now," said Worrell, who used to pay a man to help clean the lot and tried to buy the property from the city years ago, without success. "This is worth all the time we put into it. Now I get what I want done for free."
When Worrell was introduced to the crowd at the groundbreaking by Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes Pen Lucy, there were hoots, hollers and applause.
For much of the ceremony, Worrell, who was born in West Baltimore in 1931, clutched to her chest a framed photograph of one of the fallen youths, Kent Johnson, a family friend who was killed in a drive-by shooting less than a block away in 1992. The memorial garden will be named after him.
One of Worrell's own sons, Charles Ambrose Gibson - who was 19 when he was killed in West Baltimore in 1985 - was also listed on her memorial sign, which she removed from the lot for the construction.
The neighborhood began to turn around in the past few years, Worrell said, after Dixon's predecessor, Martin O'Malley, followed through on a pledge to increase police patrols of the area. "He promised to clean it up, and he did," she said, noting that the groundbreaking yesterday was a new chapter in the area's attempted revival.
The event came about through a contest sponsored by HGTV, a cable channel that focuses on home and lifestyle programming. In the contest, people around the country were urged to vote in favor of projects in their own communities, and five cities were chosen - Baltimore, New Orleans, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington.
In addition to the new memorial garden in Pen Lucy, the projects in Baltimore include the restoration of two structures - a house just down the street from Worrell's and the nearby headquarters of the Community Mediation Program. In the latter project, at the corner of Greenmount and Venable avenues, a large mural on the side of the building, showing popular figures such as Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, is being restored by the original artist, Bob Hieronimus, who painted it in 1996.
The three projects are expected to cost about $250,000, according to Gayle Economos, a spokeswoman for the coalition involved in the construction. She said the memorial park next to Worrell's house would cost about $60,000.
No benches will be installed in the park, to discourage loitering, but there will be food for thought in a curving walkway running through it. Anti-violence sayings and legends carved into the stepping stones, and chosen by students from Guilford Elementary/Middle School and members of the Pen Lucy Neighborhood Association, will include: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world," from Mahatma Gandhi; and, from Frederick Douglass, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."