There is no park in McElderry Park. But the East Baltimore neighborhood will soon be one of the greenest urban communities in the region.
Over the next year, the National Wildlife Federation will spend $200,000 to turn McElderry Park into a “deep green community,” complete with pollinator gardens, hundreds of trees, pervious pavement, rain gardens, murals, cisterns and alleys that are filled with green space instead of cracked asphalt.
The federation has done projects like this elsewhere in the country, but McElderry Park is on a larger scale. It is also an intense partnership. The federation’s money is coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. The federation is working with Blue Water Baltimore on rain gardens, Baltimore Tree Trust on street tree plantings, and the Maryland Institute College of Art on designing some murals. Banner Neighborhoods, an organization dedicated to improving quality-of-life issues, is also part of the project. So are Amazing Grace Lutheran and Prince of Peace Baptist, the two churches that bookend the neighborhood. The McElderry Park Community Association has been supportive, too.
“It is taking a deeper dive than what we’ve done in the past,” said Kim Martinez, the federation’s regional education manager. “We’re really trying to look at the residents’ needs when we design the projects. They need to start and end with the community in Baltimore. It has to be what they want.”
Too often, well-intentioned environmental groups come into a neighborhood with ideas for a project and foist it upon the residents, who often didn’t ask for it. As a result, such projects aren’t maintained. That happened in McElderry Park, when some volunteers who didn’t live in the neighborhood planted a community vegetable garden. Before long, the plants gave way to unmanageable weeds, and the raised beds became infested with rats.
That garden will become a rain garden, at the homeowners’ request, and the hope is that it will alleviate flooding that many row house owners experience.
Under the new plan, homeowners will be able to control their destiny. Thirty homeowners will receive $400 vouchers for Herring Run Nursery, which Blue Water Baltimore owns. There, knowledgeable staff will help them choose the best plants for their backyards and how to care for them. They will get a yard sign indicating they are participating in the greening program.
Behind Amazing Grace Lutheran, the partnership is planting a pollinator garden to grow vegetables and fruits for the community. The area is a sacred place, said Amazing Grace’s Jennifer Kunze. There is a prayer labyrinth and a mural of the butterfly’s life cycle on the ground that children like to skip across. In a neighborhood that was until recently one of the city’s most violent, Kunze said, the back of the church offered solace, a small patch of green.
“A lot of good things are happening here,” said Ronald Rucker, an artist who volunteers on the mural projects and in the garden. Rucker once lived in the neighborhood. Then, he became homeless. He is living elsewhere now but saving his money with the hope of returning to McElderry Park. Whether or not that happens, he said, he’ll continue to be involved in the greening efforts.
“When I was little, digging in the garden, it was therapeutic, but I didn’t know it back then,” he said. “I think it grounds our kids, having a garden. And it’s good for your sinuses. It’s good for you to be outside expanding your lungs, your imagination.”
Already, the Baltimore Tree Trust has removed more than 11,000 feet of impervious surface and planted 400 new street trees. That, too, has been collaboration.
“We met with them for an entire year before we even put a shovel in the ground,” said Amanda Cunningham, director of programs for the Tree Trust.
In the past, planting trees in the city wasn’t easy. Homeowners had to give permission. Cunningham spent a lot of her time trying to track down homeowners by certified letter. She never heard from most of them. But a change in the city policy now says that trees can go in front of a home on a city street — though the Tree Trust says they won’t plant one if someone objects.
Few do. In fact, Cunningham said, people often call to complain that a neighbor got a tree and they didn’t. “I have people calling me from this neighborhood,” she said. “I never had that before.”
The federation chose McElderry after determining both the need and the buy-in from neighbors. It had worked on smaller projects in the Baltimore neighborhoods of Lauraville, Curtis Bay, Reservoir Hill and Pigtown.
Jonathan Erwin, of MICA, said the school’s involvement expends beyond murals and into sustainable design. Erwin hopes to create a “climate-resilient block” that will reduce the heat-island effect and help air quality. He has also designed a newsletter for the community, where residents cover the news and share information. If the block idea succeeds, other neighborhoods in Baltimore can copy it.
Martinez is hoping for that.
“I’m so excited to walk around and see all these different things in motion,” she said. “I want to use it as a model for what could be.”