Discontent grows out of church's plans for garden space in Pen Lucy

The Baltimore Sun

As anyone who has gotten soil under his or her nails knows, to garden is to constantly ward off encroachment - the weeds, the slugs, the insatiable tulip-snarfing squirrels.

Vivian Needum has another perennial interloper on her list: the threat of development.

Needum has tended a garden on a couple of abandoned lots in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Pen Lucy, a swath of grass and, in the summer, flowers and herbs and whatever else residents want to plant. It's a decidedly modest affair - you'd never mistake it for Sherwood Gardens and its manicured swaths of tulips over on the other side of York Road - but one that provides the community with a welcome bit of green space.

"What's wrong with having an open space, like Guilford?" Needum demands to know.

It is a question that for several years now has pitted Needum and her supporters against a church in the neighborhood with a different vision for the two lots on East 43rd Street just east of Old York Road: as the site of a building offering services the community really needs - from a 24-hour day care to a jobs program to, ironically, a conflict resolution center.

There may well be a need for the latter, I think, seeing the skeptical if not downright hostile looks that greeted a representative of the church, Refuge Way of the Cross, at a neighborhood meeting last week. It was not a new issue - the church has proposed building on the lots in the past - but the garden has managed to prevail.

The city took over the lots about 10 years ago after the houses on them were abandoned, demolished the houses, and, through the Adopt-a-Lot program, allowed Needum to develop the land as a garden.

"It was a dump," she said. "Refrigerators, galvanized pipes, bottles, paraphernalia, you name it."

She organized youths at her own place of worship, Antioch Church, to clear the land - they filled four trucks the city sent over - and plant it.

But Refuge Way of the Cross had designs of its own. Its pastor, Bishop Leroy Canady, says the church wants to expand its space and its services to the community. Initially, the church sought to build extra parking on the lots, which drew opposition in the neighborhood that killed that plan, but now it wants to build a multipurpose center. It has offered to buy the lots from the city for $46,000.

"We're just trying to increase our work here," Canady says. "We don't want to cause any hardships in the community."

He has some support. Robert Nowlin, a respected and longtime activist in the community, says he doesn't want to take sides but believes the church's plan could ultimately benefit more people than the garden currently does. "My opinion is that if there is going to be ... a center there, that's something that will benefit the children year-round," he said.

It's become one of those continuing neighborhood dramas, with various meetings getting called and City Council members drawn in.

"It's like that [Harry] Truman quote," Councilman Bill Henry said when I talked to him about the dispute. That would be the one that goes, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

Henry says the church's history of proposing expansion plans but eventually not moving forward with them, or changing them, has exasperated community members. Even if the church is now proposing something that may well benefit the community, the neighborhood is not in any mood to listen anymore, he thinks.

Henry and council member Mary Pat Clarke, who has worked with Needum over the years, both attended the Pen Lucy Community Association meeting last week. Ten residents listened to a church elder talk about the church's plan but then voted unanimously to write a letter to the city expressing their opposition to the sale of the lots to Refuge Way of the Cross.

"The community already likes the property the way it is," said Angel Entner, president of the community association.

Canady said he is not sure whether the church will continue to pursue the purchase. Henry said the sale would have to come before the City Council, and the property might have to be rezoned if the church intends to use it for a day care. Clarke suggested that the community association might want to pursue further protection for the garden, perhaps by working with Baltimore Green Space, a land trust that helps preserve open space in the city, so that it isn't constantly under threat of being sold and developed.

Needum, who wasn't able to attend the last meeting, was happy that the garden got the support that it did from the community association.

She had despaired when she learned of the church's latest efforts to buy the land, given that she had lost one of her prime supporters from previous battles. "Our garden is being taken from us, and I don't have Councilman [Ken] Harris anymore," she said of the representative who was killed in September.

Now she thinks it would be nice to dedicate the garden to him.

"It really is," Needum said, "the miracle on 43rd Street."

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