After Freddie Gray unrest, activists hope to transform Sandtown-Winchester with murals, gardens

The bus pulled up to the sidewalk at the corner of Mount and Presbury streets in West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was arrested. Passengers took pictures of a giant mural of Gray painted on the side of a home.

It was a sight neighbors said they had never seen in Sandtown-Winchester: tourists.


The three men responsible for the mural — Brandon Ross, one of Gray's best friends; J.C. Faulk, an activist; and Justin Nethercut, a street artist who goes by the name Nether — were excited to see their work bringing positive attention to the blighted neighborhood. But they chuckled as they recalled how no one set foot off the bus.

Nether painted the mural to pay tribute to Gray and to beautify the corner. The men say neighbors encouraged them to do more of them; many offered their houses as canvasses. So the men are planning more than a dozen others, an effort they hope will transform the neighborhood.


They hope to raise about $100,000 to buy supplies and pay the artists for their time.

"Painting this mural isn't going to solve police brutality," Nether said. "But it can act as a catalyst to change people's thoughts."

The project is the latest in a series intended to build hope in one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. A community garden started in a vacant lot by neighbors 15 years ago has spread; a long-dormant fountain has sprung to life at a park no longer surrounded by vacant buildings.

Ross, Faulk and Nether met at one of the many marches through the neighborhood the week after Gray's death in April. The 25-year-old Baltimore man had suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.


Nether told Ross his idea for the mural and asked for his thoughts on how it should look. They settled on a depiction of Gray, with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists at his right shoulder and his family and friends on his left.

Faulk collected donations of flowers and landscaping tools from the Home Depot in Towson to plant a garden in the grassy lot in front of it. He hopes to add a small fountain in the middle.

Ross said the work "made a direct difference."

"The impact was beautifying this area," he said. "It was a gray wall with a bald grass patch. This makes things around it happier. People keep trash to a minimum, you don't have people just hanging out on the corner."

Many of the murals are planned around the Mount Street corridor from North Avenue, where officers first chased Gray, to the Western District Police Station, where he was pulled unconscious from a police van.

A mural at Mount and Westwood streets shows a woman holding an American flag in the Pan-African colors of red, green, and black and surrounded by flowers, which Faulk said represent peace. Faulk and others spent Sunday mowing the tall grass by the mural in preparation for another garden.

At the corner of North Avenue and Mount Street, a mural by artist Sor Ta, interpreted from a picture City Paper photographer J.M. Giordano took during a protest, depicts two men holding an upside-down, black-and-white American flag. One man's fist is in the air; a pair of handcuffs dangles from his wrist.

Faulk said he wants the art to bring the neighborhood together and "show we can do something to fix it up, and the city can do it, too."

"There are people out here who are committed to making this happen," he said.

Faulk, Ross and Nether join a long line of activists and volunteers who have spent years beautifying Sandtown, using art and green spaces to bring some degree of peace to one of Baltimore's most turbulent neighborhoods.

Fifteen years ago, Justine Bonner had grown tired of contractors dumping trash in an empty lot near her home on Carrollton Avenue.

She already had a large backyard garden, but she roused a few neighbors and planted another one in the empty lot.

Sure enough, the dumping stopped.

That garden slowly expanded, she said. The neighbors tilled an old, overgrown vegetable patch in the quarter-acre area on Small Street between their backyards. They planted flowers and vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, string beans and black-eyed peas.

Neighborhood children collected bricks and other debris from torn-down buildings to border the soil and named it "Our Community Garden."

"Does it feel serene back here?" Bonner asked. "It's productive. It beautifies the area. It allows the neighborhood to be creative."

The vibrant garden stands in stark contrast to the overgrown lawns and decrepit facades of vacant row homes nearby, a source of frustration for Bonner. She said the neighbors do their best to keep up the area as much as possible.

"Wherever a house was razed," Bonner said, "we tried to put a garden there."

Elder C.W. Harris, pastor at Newborn Community of Faith Church, and another activist, Todd Marcus, formed Newborn Holistic Ministries nearly 20 years ago. The nonprofit is "committed to preserve and enrich life" for residents.

They renovated a vacant building near an open-air drug market at Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street to open Martha's Place, a recovery center for drug-addicted and homeless women.

Next, they fixed up the vacant building across the street — later dubbed the Harris-Marcus Center — to house a "Jubilee Arts" program with an art and dance studio for children and adults.

The group worked for two years to convert an empty lot from a demolished building next to Martha's Place into an enclosed garden for the recovery center's residents.

A canopy of wisteria now grows thick across a large trellis, muffling the sounds of busy city streets. Ten feet from the sidewalk, fish dart under the lily pads floating in a quiet fountain. Day lilies, tulips and trees line the garden and ivy covers a green cinderblock wall.

Volunteers from the Wiltondale Garden Club and women living at the center planted and maintain a native, ornamental garden full of flowers and shrubs along one side of the yard, former garden club president Dru Peters said.

"They enjoy it, and at the same time, part of our mission is to engage people in gardening to help them understand environmental impact of a native garden," Peters said. "And it's just beautiful to be surrounded by it."

Marcus calls it a "sanctuary."

With the Annapolis-based TKF Foundation, Newborn Holistic Ministries planted a "Choose Life" garden, dedicated to those who have lost their lives to drugs and violence, on the intersection's northeast corner.

A mural of a sunlit forest creates the illusion that the garden continues on the wall of the adjacent building — one of six vacant row homes Harris and Marcus renovated for Martha's Place graduates.

As they fixed up the block, Marcus said, they noticed that the drug market that had occupied Pennsylvania Triangle Park, on the intersection's northwest corner, disappeared.

The group got the city to turn on the fountain, which had been dry for decades. They mulched and planted rose bushes around it — and had to prune them when they grew 6 feet tall. Children in the Jubilee Arts program put on a performance in the middle of the park that drew hundreds of attendees, Marcus said.


Harris said the spaces sow hope on streets in which despair is more common.


"They once saw it as rubble. When they see [the transformation], they feel their life can change," he said. "God can bring the same beauty to their life, their soul, their heart."

The green spaces are time-consuming and expensive to create and maintain. The group has spent roughly $100,000 since 2001 in gardening and greening efforts alone, Marcus said.

But Harris said the impact is worth every dollar, every phone call, every hour spent digging in the dirt.

"It's a part of life to see that fountain running, to see kids playing on that lot," he said. "Those intangibles make life worth living."


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