Group sees resiliency in Sandtown-Winchester after unrest

Sandtown-Winchester residents form community group following unrest and death of Freddie Gray.

A group of Sandtown-Winchester residents met Saturday to discuss ways to improve one of the city's most blighted and impoverished communities since the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed.

The participants, some from existing community organizations, have been meeting since May to ensure that their concerns and needs are addressed. They have organized under the name "Sandtown-Winchester United."

Michael Eugene Johnson, director of the Paul Robeson Center for Social Justice, attended to offer his help to the community, where he sees much potential.

"At the end of the day, the community needs to come together," said Johnson, who does not live in the neighborhood. "They are looking at what do we do now."

Residents and activists at the New Song Learning Center on Presstman Street discussed the need for jobs, economic development and opportunities for young people.

Lucky Crosby, Jr., said he doesn't want to see the concerns of those who live in West Baltimore overshadowed by outside interests. He said politicians have their own agendas, many pastors don't live in the community, and the police mistreat residents.

"Too many people try to speak for Sandtown-Winchester," Crosby said.

Crosby, who has two sons, ages 25 and 19, said too many children in the community lack employment opportunities and turn to selling drugs. Still, he said he's optimistic that the unrest may lead to change, as city leaders and others are forced to take a look at problems in the neglected neighborhood.

"I think the politicians are embarrassed," he said, adding: "It's not about Freddie Gray," but about families like his.

Gray, 25, died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody, sparking widespread protests and riots on the day of his funeral. His death shined a spotlight on Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested.

Some residents point to positive change already underway. At another event in Sandtown-Winchester on Saturday, resident Tonya Brown expressed optimism about the neighborhood's future. The event celebrated eight new murals created by kids in the community, including Brown's 14-year-old daughter.

"I'm so proud of her," she said.

About 80 teens worked with professional artists in the Art@Work: Sandtown, summer program in which young people are paid to help teaching artists paint murals to beautify the neighborhood. The program, organized by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and Jubilee Arts, hired applicants to the city's YouthWorks program.

Brown said such programs are vital to bringing about change. She said her daughter would come home drained from working on the project but loved it because the job gave her purpose — and a paycheck. She said her daughter is hoping to get another job through the program.

"She's eager. She said, 'I love making my own money,'" Brown said. Without the program, Brown said, "There's not much for her, only baby-sitting."

Brown said she was concerned that the program would not be funded after the riots broke out, but she said it is important to kids in the community, to give them growth opportunities, and to engage them.

"You have to listen to" the young people, she said. "They have to have a voice and they want to be heard."

As a marching band performed and a long line formed around the block for hot dogs on the grill, Stephen Towns, an artist who worked with teens on two murals outside the Uptown Boxing Center, finished some last-minute touches.

"This is completely opposite of what it was," he said as he painted white dots on a monarch butterfly in the mural.

Towns said many of the teens he worked with are eager for a more opportunities but remain frustrated.

"It's really important to work with these youth, to let them know they are going to have to work hard to create opportunities for themselves, to let them know they have the power to change the mess that adults have left them with," he said.

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