The streets near Lewis Sharpe's home are filled with the Baltimore tableau familiar to fans of "Homicide" and "The Wire." Blocks of boarded-up brick row houses, bookended by package-goods stores, face each other across potholed streets. Chip bags and candy wrappers blow in a light summer breeze. Shirtless young men walk neglected alleyways, passing "keep out" signs and graffiti so faded their messages no longer say anything at all.
It is not a place one might expect to find a garden. But turn the corner of North and Collington avenues, and plot after plot of black-eyed susans and blackberry bushes, towering tomatoes and neat rows of Swiss chard greet the eye.
The Duncan Street Miracle Garden is not your average backyard vegetable patch. It takes up 44 lots. The street that runs through it was once a regular Baltimore road, with houses on either side. Now, it's a garden path paved with pebbles and lined with rose bushes. Enough greens grow here to keep the neighborhood stocked with salads for months, not to mention a hearty crop of corn, broccoli, turnips, beets, kale, raspberries and apples.
Sharpe, who wears an eye patch and a straw hat, has been tending these garden plots since 1988. By then, the city had torn down many of the Duncan Street properties, and the garden's lot became a haven for drug dealing and illegal dumping. Tired of living among the ruins, a local community group took over the space. With the city's blessing and Sharpe in charge, the residents planted a garden.
Even as their neighborhood remained forlorn, the garden flourished. Volunteers tended it and brought the produce to churches that feed the homeless. Local foundations funded material for new raised beds, signs and fencing. Horticulturalists helped it expand. Nobody wanted to see it go away.
And yet, it wasn't permanently protected. At any time, the city could grant permission for someone to build on it. The gardeners needed a way to keep their patch of paradise, but didn't know how.
Enter Miriam Avins and Baltimore Green Space, a land trust that helps communities protect pocket parks, gardens and patches of green in the city's urban core.
In late 2009, Baltimore City developed a "dollar-lot" policy, allowing community groups that have been using a plot of city-owned land to claim it for $1. The city can then deed the lot to Avins' trust, which, in turn, drafts an agreement allowing the community group to use it for free. Thus, the space is protected and the community can continue to keep it green in perpetuity.
Avins' land trust currently protects three sites — two gardens and a horseshoe pit — with two more in the acquisition phase and another two in the application phase. But she expects that number to grow.
After the "dollar lot" policy was set, Avins and her small staff undertook a study of all the vacant lots in the city and their condition. They took more than 600 photos of lots and entered them into a database. They found 115 sites on 425 lots that could be protected. Avins provided that list to the city.
Not all of them will become part of the land trust, she said. To qualify, applicants must submit a long application and include proof that the community wants the lot, that they have the volunteers to sustain it and that it will improve the quality of life.
Once that's established, the real work begins: hunting down liens, determining whether the property is suitable for growing food (an old paint store, for example, might be a bad fit as a garden), investigating any illegal dumping that may have taken place there and negotiating with adjacent owners, if they're still alive, about access points. Then, once the land trust owns the property, there is the matter of obtaining liability insurance.
The city gardens offer more than just food and shade in a hard-scaped and hardscrabble urban environment. They deliver environmental benefits, absorbing nitrogen from the runoff coming down the city streets and acting as a sponge to prevent more stormwater from entering the Patapsco River, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. They lessen the heat island effect, provide shade and educate children about the importance of healthy eating.
They also put people in a good mood.
"My wife and I, we might be fighting. And then I'll come into the garden. When I come back, she says, 'you got a big grin on your face,'" said Norvin George Hood, a retired forklift driver who's been gardening at Duncan Street for years.
As one of 11 children who knows what it means to go to bed hungry, Hood is happy to donate his broccoli, cabbage and kale to neighborhood food pantries and families. A lot of it, though, gets sautéed in a little butter and eaten at home around the corner.
A few blocks away, in Greenmount West, Lowell Larsson said that, to understand why he gardens, one has to walk around the block. He leads a tour past dilapidated row houses with boarded-up windows and the same sad graffiti that decorates the Duncan Street area.
"Imagine if you were a school kid, and you had to walk by this every day. Every day, no hope. It's really, really sad," he said. "I'd like to think that this green space represents hope. It gives people a view that not everything is desolation. Nature can be a very healing influence."
Larsson has established Brentwood Commons, a community garden in a vacant lot behind his row house. A row of vacant buildings casts a shadow on his garden. Next to it are two small garden plots tended by two elderly women who barely speak English, he said. They grow the food for their sustenance.
Larsson's space is not protected by Avins' trust, but is one of the projects in the pipeline.
The land trust's first protected garden is in Upper Fell's Point, which is less than two miles from the Miracle Garden, but seems a world away.
On a street with well-kept row houses and within a short walk of some of the city's best-reviewed restaurants and tourist attractions, three vacant lots cast a pall over the neighborhood.
The space, recalled longtime resident Jan Mooney, resulted from a fire that burned out a bar years before. The city had demolished what remained, but the lot was filled with rats and weeds. In 2009, Baltimore Green Space acquired the deed for two of the lots; it took until just a few months ago to get the deed for the third.
But, Mooney said, it was worth the wait. "This is the only green space in Upper Fells Point," she said, "and there was always that possibility that the city would take it back."
The garden has become a community focal point, the setting for potluck dinners, pumpkin-carving contests and evening socializing.
Beth Strommen, director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability, calls Avins' initiative "an extremely positive influence" so that residents don't have to worry about losing their green spaces.
The city has been making it easier for residents to adopt lots. A year ago, it launched the Power in Dirt program, which stripped away barriers to vacant lot ownership. One of the biggest was water. Now, vacant lots can hook up to a city water meter for about $120 a year. Before that, some gardens were using hydrants or homeowners' hoses, which was neither safe nor efficient.
Through Power in Dirt, the city advertises the vacant lots that are available and offers one– to five-year leases. So far, more than 600 of the 6,000 available lots have been adopted. Most of them are now community gardens, said Vu Dang, the city's chief services officer.
Those that meet Baltimore Green Space's criteria can be permanently protected. Dang said he thinks his office will keep Avins pretty busy.
The idea for the land trust began in Avins' backyard.
She and her family moved to the Waverly neighborhood a decade ago, and quickly turned their attention to the vacant lot next door. She and her neighbors planted a garden there in 2004. But two years later, a developer attempted to buy the land.
Avins negotiated with the city to keep the land under the old adopt-a-lot program. But through her work, she'd met many other gardeners, including the ones from Duncan Street.
Avins found herself consumed by the idea of a trust to protect gardens and community spaces. In 2007, she and several other community gardeners founded Baltimore Green Space. Later that year, she won an Open Society Institute fellowship to work on developing the land trust.
"In a city, land is either positive or negative, but it's never neutral," Avins said. "If you can turn a negative into a positive, in the long run, it's very good for the city."
Strommen agreed. "One of the things you don't get in the city is the opportunity to play in the dirt," she said. "These gardens provide people with an opportunity to have a relationship to their environment."
As for Sharpe, he continues to win city farming contests for the best squashes and strawberries around. He just put up a new sign welcoming visitors to the Duncan Street Miracle Garden. What was once a city secret is hidden and vulnerable no more, and may inspire others to open up space and let in the sunshine.
"Quite a few people know about it now," Sharpe said. "It makes me feel good that they recognize it. Now everybody can know it's back here."