The sound of a bird chirping echoes through the empty street as Lewis Sharpe unlocks the gate to the Duncan Street Miracle Garden.
“I call this the miracle garden because it is truly a miracle with how many things we grow here,” Sharpe said. “We grow anything your heart desires from sunflower seeds to rainbow peppers.”
“You can take anything you want, I make plenty of copies of them all,” Sharpe said.
The binders start with black and white pictures from 1988 when Sharpe first started working on the garden and then goes to pictures of volunteers working in the garden last summer.
Sharpe stops at a faded picture of him and a friend. The clothes they are wearing are reminiscent of a different decade although Sharpe is wearing the straw hat and eye patch he is notorious for in the photograph.
“Many of the older folks who came and worked here have all passed on,” Sharpe said. “The problem now is getting the young people to take an interest.”
The binders contain too many awards to count. They are also filled with copies of the numerous grants Sharpe’s garden has received. It seems as if everyone from the city government to private individuals have recognized the work Sharpe has put into the garden that once used to be a vacant lot filled with trash.
“I was even on the television show Secret Millionaire,” Sharpe said with a chuckle, referencing the show where wealthy benefactors give surprise donations to worthy causes.
“This lot used to be a place where people would come to do drugs and other things,” Sharpe said. “This was a place for prostitutes and drug addicts.”
Twenty years ago, the Duncan Street Community Garden site contained old row houses on an alley that had fallen into extreme disrepair. In 1989, the site which occupies the entire 1800 block of Duncan Street, was slowly transformed into a garden with everything from roses to watermelon.
“The vacancies in Baltimore have typically caused problems,” said Valerie Rupp, the Public Relations Representative for Power in Dirt. “There were so many alleyways and abandoned warehouses but the communities in Baltimore are turning these spaces into something unique.”
The Duncan Street Miracle Garden, which makes no profit and donates most of what it grows to local soup kitchens like Moveable Feast, is not the only vacant lot that has turned into a thriving center for the community surrounding it.
There is also the Filbert Street Garden, which has a partnership with the school community that creates “outdoor learning spaces.” according to Garden Manager Jason Reed.
“Before Power in Dirt it was hard to adopt a lot,” said Reed. “While many people can grow their own healthy food in their backyard, in the city it is a lot more difficult to start a garden.”
Organizations like Power in Dirt have made it possible for these transformations and have helped simplify all the red tape that communities faced from the city before.
“The community starts out by finding a city owned vacant lot. There are maps online you can check to see what is available. Then, they fill out an adoption application so they can legally start to work on the lot. After that, it is up to the community what they want to do with the lot as long as it has a positive impact,” Rupp said. There is also a way for lots to access water during the gardening season, March 1st to November 30th, for a fee of $120.”
According to Rupp, communities in Baltimore have adopted over 1,100 lots. There are over 800 applications for grants for the spring.
After five years on an adoption agreement, if a community wants to permanently secure the lot they can apply to have it protected as a land trust site through Baltimore Green Space.
“One grant that is pending is the community garden in Hampden which used to be an old warehouse. Now they even have an outdoor pizza oven,” Rupp said.
According to Sharpe, the Duncan Street Miracle Garden became protected in 2010 due to the work of Baltimore Green Space.
“This garden won the award for years until finally they said to me it was time to let the other gardens get a chance,” Sharpe said with a laugh at the end.
He surveys the rows of beds that line the garden. As he walks through the garden, picking up any trash that has blown into the garden, he details what the spring holds for the garden.
“As soon as the snow stops, that compost heap over there will be the first thing we get to work on,” Sharpe said.
For now, Sharpe’s main concern is picking up the glass bottles and empty fast food bags that are littered around the perimeter of the garden.
“I have also started clearing out that lot over there and that lot over there,” Sharpe said, pointing to the surrounding area around the garden.
Sharpe brings out before and after pictures of different lots that surrounded the Miracle Garden.
Where there was once heaps of trash there is now cleared land with grass sprouting up, despite the recent snowstorm. There are piles of wood chips throughout the garden for when the weather is warmer.
Even though there are binders full of Sharpe’s and the communities’ accomplishments he still is not done improving.
As Sharpe details his hopes for the area, a vision of what he wants the area to look like unfolds.
“I would like an office in that house over there so folks can keep warm and take a break from working,” Sharpe said. “I would like all the lots around here to be part of the garden.”
The problem of thousands of vacant lots in Baltimore like the ones still surrounding the Miracle Garden is one that has gained growing attention. This is partly because of Mayor Rawlings-Blake emphasis on it in the State of the City address in 2013. One of the initiatives she has created is Vacants to Value.
“The abandoned areas are heartbreaking for someone who loves and invests in Baltimore,” said Ashley Gilbert, a graduate of Towson University.
Living in Federal Hill for 5 years when she walks the streets she says she sees “wasted potential.” She is not alone. From cab drivers who live and work in Baltimore to college graduates who have claimed the city as their own, many echo the same sentiment.
“Baltimore is a wonderful city, but it needs more attraction and interaction to get other people interested in it,” said Arsalan Chaudhry, a cab driver who drives back and forth to Baltimore every day. “I see all the rundown places and I know it’s not good for our image.”
According to Safer City Baltimore under the Mayor’s Vacants to Value program, the City has demolished more than 400 vacant homes, issued 687 code violation citations on blighted properties, leveraged more than $37 million in new private investment, and has provided targeted incentives to new homebuyers of formerly vacant houses.
When Mayor Rawlings-Blake took office she vowed to bring 10,000 more families into Baltimore. The beginning of this growth can be seen in projects like Vacants to Value and Power in Dirt. These projects and the communities coming together can make this possible for 10,000 more families to move into Baltimore.
“I want to get the word out and I need more supplies and volunteers to work in the garden,” Sharpe said.
He gathers up his binders and locks the gate to the garden.
Although the Duncan Street Miracle Garden still fits the name Sharpe gave it years ago, it is still a work in progress. Sharpe doesn’t have an e-mail address and carries around the binders because he hasn’t had a chance to “put all of the pictures on a CD.” It is characteristic of Sharpe’s humble nature that he brushes aside any personal recognition of the work he has done.
“One day I just started working so that folks could have food from here instead of going to the market,” Sharpe said. “I would rather them have home-grown produce for free then them spend money at the market.
One of his next projects is to gather all the material he has saved over the years showing how far the garden has come.
“I’m not good with technology, I am good at gardening,” Sharpe said.
After Sharpe finishes his work in the garden for the day he carries out the trash bags he has filled and puts them into his truck. He looks back at the garden and see’s how far his garden has come. Not only does he see how much his garden has grown but mostly all he sees is what still needs to be done.
In the spring there will be sunflowers, apples, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, potatoes, and anything else volunteers decide to plant but that is not enough for this determined gardener with an extraordinary green thumb.
“I definitely need some help with those other lots, to get this garden to change the face of Baltimore.”