Once, the intersection of Cator Avenue and Old York Road in the Pen Lucy neighborhood was so troubled that people wouldn't sit outside on their porches or walk through on their way to church. Young men were being shot and killed on the street. And the corner lot was grassy and overgrown.
But 22 years ago, Emma Worrell began tending to the broken lot, trimming the grass, inviting neighbors to plant flowers and, eventually, dedicating the rectangle of green to members of the community who had been lost to violence. She named the park after a family friend, a bystander who was killed in a drive-by shooting a block away, and erected a sign bearing the names of those whose lives had ended suddenly and tragically.
Worrell's quiet effort became a little less quiet when a local organization and a national television program got wind of it, and her dreams were beyond fulfilled yesterday when the Kent Memorial Garden officially opened after an emotional ribbon-cutting.
The garden received a $50,000 makeover and now is bordered by rose bushes; a shiny black fence and archway have replaced an old chain-link fence. A stone plaque with the names of the men Worrell wanted to remember is set in a freshly landscaped oval in the center of the parcel amid ferns and newly blooming flowers. "This path is dedicated to the youth of the Pen Lucy community, walk along it in peace," reads an engraved stone at the entrance to the garden.
"I just can't believe it," said Worrell, who has lived on the block for 40 years. "It was worth everything I went through with it." She clutched a photograph of Kent Johnson, her son's best friend and the original inspiration for the memorial. He worked for the city housing authority at the time of his death in 1992 and would have been 50 now.
"I think it's beautiful. It's words you can't even express," said Tammy Johnson, Kent's mother. "It makes you feel good in your heart to see that someone cares not just about my son, but about all those who have passed. ... I think he'd be looking down and saying, 'Ma, this is something.' He probably would never have thought that someone would do this."
The most poignant part was just looking at the names, she said, and thinking, "This is dedicated to you."
"When our young black men die and get killed, people say, 'Oh, that's another one.' They don't know they have families and people who miss them," Johnson said. "I don't care what kind of lifestyle they have. Those people are loved."
The garden was funded by a coalition of interests including Rebuilding Together Baltimore - which has been working in the neighborhood for two years, providing home repairs to more than 50 low-income homeowners - and Home and Garden Television. HGTV, a home and lifestyle cable channel, sponsored a contest in which people around the country voted for projects in their communities. Baltimore and four other cities were chosen; the garden was one of three local projects HGTV ultimately selected.
Vendors donated some materials and organizers and about 75 volunteers - including some HGTV fans who traveled from as far as Indiana to participate - completed much of the work for the garden in late April. They are hoping that footage an HGTV camera crew took of the garden being built will make it onto a show down the road, said Bonnie Bessor, the executive director of Rebuilding Together Baltimore.
Letha Turner, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years, is the mother of one of the men memorialized in the garden. Clifton Turner, a student at Morgan State University, was on his way to school when he was shot in the heart in 1997.
Turner, 80, made it to the gathering, even though it was a steamy day. People had already started to clear out when she walked unevenly through the garden. She made a slow circle, stopped at the plaque in the center and gazed at her son's name.