Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ms. Edith and the tot lot - a Baltimore trailblazer (Part 1)

Tot lot in Pigtown - All photos by the Archer/Carroll Street SafeGrowth Team
By Kallan Lyons 

Kallan is a journalist who has blogged for Journalists for Human Rights and has contributed to the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper. In 2013 she spent 6 months as media trainer in Ghana at the African College of Communications. She wrote this guest blog after attending the last part of the Baltimore SafeGrowth course.

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At the corner of Carroll and Archer Streets in Southwest Baltimore sits the Pigtown Tot Lot, a park complete with a playground and plenty of space for a community gathering. This Tot Lot was one of four projects chosen by one of the community problem-solving teams during the latest Baltimore SafeGrowth course (another project appeared in this blog earlier).

The brightly colored jungle gym is surrounded by an iridescent wall, and would never allude to the ominous ambiance: just under a year ago, four people were injured in a shootout next to the park. To many, the Tot Lot is anything but inviting.

Sidewalk conditions around the tot lot
Nicknamed ‘Charm City’, Baltimore’s beautiful row houses, Inner Harbor, and historical attractions have been overshadowed by its drug culture and rampant crime. The city of just over 600,000 has one of the highest homicide rates in the United States. Abandoned homes, poor neighborhood lighting, and a lack of community spaces are just a few of the contributing factors. In Pigtown, kids who grew up playing at the Tot Lot have gone on to become drug dealers on the park corner.

When you hear Baltimore, you may think of Freddie Gray or even the fictitious Omar Little from The Wire. One name you likely haven’t heard is Edith Nelson. Affectionately referred to by her community as Ms. Edith, the 76-year-old has lived in Pigtown since 1989, across the street from the Tot Lot. When she moved in, the park was nothing but weeds.

“For me, it was an eyesore,” says Ms. Nelson. “From that very day [that I moved in] I said I will not live here all my life and see an eyesore like this. That’s when I began to work on the playground, on the Pigtown Tot Lot.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE 

In Pigtown, people came together to make a difference. Ms. Nelson began by collecting money door-to-door, selling pies and cupcakes at the local Credit Union, and calling on anyone she could to help with the project. She and her small group of supporters successfully raised the $15,000 required to redesign the space. Inspired by her enthusiasm, people latched on to her vision, first through financial contributions, then by coming out to plant trees, paint the playground and rejuvenate the park.

“I have albums from the very day that it happened and we had lots of children that really came out: we had a wheelbarrow and wood chips; our playground was wood - now it’s metal. We had a lot of people getting together back then.” Young and old gathered to reclaim their neighborhood and in the process, rediscovered their community.

Nearby housing in Baltimore's Pigtown
Decades later, as neighbors moved away, many of those early successes lost momentum and crime returned. But despite recent events, her contributions are still standing strong and that is what the SafeGrowth team could see. Ms. Nelson has remained the trailblazer: with the help of a local organization Paul’s Place, her community renamed one of the streets Edith Way.

Ms. Nelson says although there are fewer children around, she and several others continue to clean up the area, hauling dirt and planting flowers, and holding an annual cookout that’s free to anyone in the neighborhood.

The SafeGrowth team asked Ms. Nelson to attend their presentation at the course workshop. They knew her commitment is a reminder of the importance of building community. Though there have been some setbacks, she feels doing so is about volunteerism, friendship, and people working together to accomplish a purpose.

Colorful statement at Carroll/Archer street
If there is such thing as having a purpose in life, I believe Ms. Nelson has found one. Her kids have moved to other neighborhoods, but she says she’s not going anywhere.

“When I bought this house and moved into this community, despite all I saw, I still loved it and said I will live here forever. The Tot Lot has been my project, and as long as I am alive, and I have strength, I will never ever see it go back to where it was.”

Next Blog: The Tot Lot’s transformation started with Ms. Nelson. In part 2 - How the SafeGrowth team plans to move that forward. 

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