One way to learn what people are thinking and feeling in Baltimore’s struggling Westside, where worldwide attention has been focused since Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, is to go to a tiny pocket park called The Choose Life Memorial.
There at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street – amid a Grimm’s fairy-tale grove of birches and other trees, some real and some painted by a muralist – is a wooden bench.
Tucked into a compartment under the bench is a yellow waterproof journal where people can write whatever they want.
“I have been clean for 10 days now. And it has been hard. But I did it. THANK GOD,” one person has written.
“God bless all who read this. I got hurt on the job Monday. I’m okay but my back hurts, really hurts. It’s not from being ill or sick. But God has my back,” someone wrote on March 11.
“Hey my name is Calvin. It did rain a little but it stop. It is so nice here. I would like to say I thank god I’m here because so many day and night I sold dope all over the place and I’m steel living if there was no god I would not had made it at all it was so many night they tried to robb us and other things I can’t talk about at all.”
Some journal entries make reference to the four-sided stone column in this shady oasis memorializing people who died because of drug use.
“My sister’s name is Lisa Michelle Ashe. And she is one of the people on the Memorial in the center of this park,” said one writer, noting that it was Palm Sunday. “I love her more than words could ever express.”
Countering Violence and Alienation
Created in 2007, the park is part of the Open Spaces, Sacred Spaces program of the Annapolis-based TKF Foundation. Their website lists 24 such spots in the Baltimore area where these benches have been set up for the purpose of connecting city dwellers with nature and promoting “reflection and rejuvenation.”
“The speed, violence and alienation that characterize our current period in human history create an important need for open spaces, sacred places,” founders Tom and Kitty Stoner write on the site. “It is the Foundation’s hope that the spaces it has helped to support bring some peace and well being to people’s lives.”
The foundation works with partnering organizations who help conceptualize and maintain each spot. In the case of the Choose Life Memorial in West Baltimore, the group was Newborn Holistic Ministries, the non-profit parent of Martha’s Place.
The benches, as well as labyrinthes, fountains and other features, are not just in impoverished places such as Sandtown-Winchester but across Maryland and in a few other states as well.
They include a place for recovering war veterans and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a garden for rehab patients associated with Kernan Hospital in Baltimore and another in Northeast Baltimore at the League for People with Disabilities that features adaptive gardening tools and fragrant plantings.
There’s even one in one of Baltimore’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Roland Park – a bench along Stony Run dedicated to the daughter of former Johns Hopkins University biophysics professor Michael Beer, who worked for years to clean up Stony Run and the Jones Falls.
Along a City Stream
Most of the journal entries at the Stony Run bench, near Oakdale Avenue, reflect the tranquil, idyllic quality of that leafy green corridor.
“I spent a wonderful day with my lovely daughter,” one person writes. Another asks “has anyone heard of geocaching?”
Many comment on the beauty of the spot. “Tomorrow is the last day of March. It’s 57°,” wrote one person, who said she came with a child “to listen to the lovely sound of the water and bask in the sun.”
One writer inventoried his worries and came up with this:
In some ways, the entries aren’t that different than the ones in the journal in Sandtown. People here also talk about loneliness, substance abuse and loved ones who have died.
“The other night I woke in the hospital drunk and now I don’t know what to do. It wasn’t the first time I had been that drunk. . . I had to come to to terms with the fact that drinking because I am sad and angry won’t improve anything or change anything but something has to change. I’m lonely and don’t want to be lonely any more.
“Maybe your sad and lonely because you drink,” someone offers in response. “Try AA.”
“We all played together as children. Endless neighborhood-wide games of capture the flag and hide-and-seek,” another writes of an old friend she lost.
On May 11, someone wrote “Happy Birthday to me!!! I love myself and no one else. PS: Everyone forgot my birthday.”
Said “Alex” on Feb. 12, “Back at home, when everything is in chaos I go to the woods.” Using the language of the Internet, someone has written a “Like” up-vote on that comment.
Harrowing Life Stories
Still, in many other ways the entries in Sandtown seem to come from another world.
For one thing, writers here directly reference Freddie Gray’s death, the issue of police use of force, and the civil unrest, rioting and street violence that have followed in its wake. (No one brought it up or even vaguely alluded to it in the North Baltimore book.)
“Now the city is going off because of what happened. The police killed another one of our young black men,” one Sandtown journal writer observed. “It is sad that they are here to help but they killing people.”
Also, these journal entries talk a lot about survival – getting by, making money, kicking drugs.
“Took a break from the street took a seat on this bench. Thinking bout swells, thinking bout cash, thinking bout making the best in this here life right here and preparing for the next.”
Several of the writers took a break from making some extra money by cleaning the park (which was completely litter-free last week) to leave a few words.
“Hey it’s Ashley just over here picking up some trash. Trying to make some money but I wanna thank you god for putting me here. And helping me stay clean each day. It’s really wonderful. I love you God. Thanks for everything. Love, Ashley M.”
And some of the life stories the journal writers tell are heartbreaking and say as much about the broken families and sense of despair in West Baltimore as any report or document could.
“God how I miss this woman and how I wish she could’ve had the chance to continue to raise me. She was the best mom a girl could ever have. She worked, had a car, a house and was an independent woman. She was literally my mother and father since my father wasn’t able to raise me. My father was more into drugs and his other women than to worry about his kids.”
One writer is simply grateful to be alive at the age of 52 and to have gotten his drug use “down way low.”
Another, mourning a sibling who didn’t make it, wrote about the loss on an exclamation-point filled-entry on a page that was ripped and almost detached.
“Why is my brother not here by my side on this bench!!? Why do I have to remember him lying down in the street!!!??”
In both of the journals, the Sandtown one and the Stony Run one, the writers seemed to take pleasure in the act of writing in that yellow journal and connecting to the place where they and the journal live.
“I could right a book and it would be a best seller,” wrote Calvin. “So many night and days I was here. I love this place forever.”