Yesterday, on the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's funeral and the start of the eight-day period of intense civil unrest that followed, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other dignitaries attended a Day of Reconciliation program at the Parks & People Foundation's new campus in Northwest Baltimore where the green nonprofit was breaking ground on a new Youth Employment Center.
From a stage that looked out across Liberty Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road to the Mondawmin transit center where police and students first clashed last year, numerous speakers—including Rawlings-Blake and newly minted Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh—spoke about the reflection and resiliency the city has demonstrated in the year since the unrest.
"Last April, we started a new path for Baltimore as a city," said Rawlings-Blake. "We were determined not to have the hours of unrest be the last word. . . . We are working every day to make Baltimore stronger, to make it safer, to make it healthier, to make it more economically sound. . . . And today, we're seeing progress. Parks & People are helping our communities to bring more jobs to our youth."
The new Youth Employment Center—a modular building that will serve as the headquarters of Parks & People's BRANCHES green job-training program—is but one facet of a nine-acre Parks & People campus more than two decades in the making.
The triangular parcel bounded by Liberty Heights Avenue, Reisterstown Road, and Auchentoroly Terrace was once part of Druid Hill Park. In fact, a large stone cottage on the property served as housing for the park superintendent. Once it was no longer inhabited, the house slowly fell into disrepair, suffering multiple fires and becoming so overgrown that a herd of goats was brought in to clear the vegetation. The Parks & People Foundation acquired the site and the house in 1995 and began raising funds to complete the restoration, which was headed up by architecture firm Ziger/Snead, whose cofounder Steve Ziger sits on the foundation's board.
In addition to the stone cottage, the campus boasts the 10,000-square-foot Sally and Butch Michel Center, a new building that houses offices, meeting spaces, and a classroom. The entire campus recently received LEED platinum status for the many eco-conscious and energy-saving features it incorporates, including solar panels, a green roof, composting toilets, and geothermal heating.
Finally, in June of last year, Parks & People began relocating staffers from its longtime headquarters in the Steiff Silver Building.
As she led a tour of the new property and its facilities last week, Kate Sam, director of communications and development for Parks & People, said last year's unrest made the nonprofit even more eager to settle into its new community.
"We really accelerated our timeline for moving right after the riots. We felt the need to be an anchor in the community as it rebuilds," she said, noting that the property was untouched by the unrest. "Maybe that's the power of green space," she adds. "If you give the community something beautiful that is clearly the best in class, there's a level of respect."
Parks & People—which runs programs to facilitate and support interaction with the outdoors—has been welcomed into the neighborhood, forging partnerships with several local community groups and institutions.
"I think we've really started building some great relationships with other anchor institutions, including Mondawmin Mall, Coppin State University, University of Maryland, all the way down the West Side—and with schools in the area to recruit the kids who need our programs," Sam said.
Franklin Lance, the pastor at the nearby Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, now sits on the board of Parks & People and said he's glad for the nonprofit's presence in the neighborhood.
"This community—for years, we believe—has been oppressed, disenfranchised, marginalized, and we see this kind of investment as an opportunity for us, a sign for us to show that revival is not only possible but it's real."
Lance also said that he feels the nonprofit's mission to improve the "overall quality of life" through the curation of green spaces and parklands fits his ministry's philosophy of caring for his congregants "holistically—body, mind, and soul."
"Having an organization that believes in that along with us is a mission I wanted to affirm," he said.
Already, the stone cottage, which dates to 1872 and cost $13 million to renovate, provides collective space for community organizations, faith-based groups, and recreation clubs, like a yoga club. On May 4, the space will host the final installment in The Johns Hopkins University's series on redlining.
The redlining series is hosted by actress Sonja Sohn, best known for her portrayal of Det. Kima Greggs in The Wire. Sohn was at the Day of Reconciliation event, filming with a documentary crew for an upcoming HBO special about Baltimore. Also on hand were radio personality Larry Young, several religious leaders, and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who left the event to address an incident across town in which a plain-clothed police officer shot a 13-year-old who was carrying a replica Beretta semiautomatic handgun. The teen is expected to survive. Three protestors from the group Maryland Working Families also attended, holding signs protesting a lack of funding for education and a proposed $535 million tax subsidy for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Port Covington development project.
When it was her turn at the podium, Parks & People Foundation president and CEO Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder emphasized the necessity of the BRANCHES program, which provides paid after-school work to teens interested in green careers. "This program is providing a safe and stable place for young people to go after school, real hands-on introductions to green careers, from landscaping and tree care to green infrastructure, construction, and scientific data collection and analysis. Through this hand's-on work . . . young people see that they have a stake in their community, that they can be leaders, that they have the power to make change," she said.
She closed her remarks by describing plans to develop the lawn area at the southern tip of the property into a new recreation field and staircase that will better connect the tract to the Mondawmin transit center and mall.
"This will be the community's place. We're going to be doing everything we can to throw the doors open to all of you. So come back early and often," she said.