Everybody Loves Grace: Barclay resident beautifies community with green thumb

— Grace Comer and the garden at Guilford Avenue and 21st Street go way back. She remembers when the floor of the garden was the foundation for two homes on the Guilford Street side. She also remembers when those dwellings succumbed to Baltimore’s vacant and dilapidated housing problems and were razed to the ground and left abandoned.

From the back window of her home, Mrs. Grace watched the vacant lots swell with debris and litter. By day: a makeshift parking lot for employees of the Baltimore City Public School System’s district office. By night: a dumpsite.

Residents in the community looked to Mrs. Grace for help. She was actively involved with the neighborhood association as a block captain and known to get things done–even if she had to roll up her own sleeves to see a project through.

“I said the only thing I can help you do is go around there and clean up,” said Comer. And that’s exactly what she did.

The neighbors who sought her help, though concerned, didn’t show up to get down and dirty. But that was OK with Mrs. Grace. She knew their hearts were in the right place. Plus, she was tired of looking out her back window at that sore sight anyway. So, she had an idea to put a garden there. She had done it before, when the riots following the death of

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 transformed the corner store next to her home into a vacant lot.

It took some convincing for her late husband, Cleveland Comer, to buy into the idea. But, no one can really tell Mrs. Grace no and neither did he. So, in 1998 they unofficially adopted the lots and got to work, putting up “no parking” signs to deter people from abandoning cars there.

“In the beginning he didn’t like the idea,” Mrs. Grace reminisced, “Like everybody else, he asked me, ‘Why in the devil we got to come around here when we live around there?’

“‘It’s a part of our community,’ is what I told him,’” she said. “‘Why not? We don’t know what might happen to it if we let it be.’”

This was truly a grassroots effort by the couple— and a labor of love. Before long, local organizations like Civic Works; Parks & People; People’s Homesteading Group; and Youth Safe Haven took an interest in her project and they spent countless hours together pulling weeds, hauling soil and planting seeds and trees.

In the garden’s infancy stages, they scrounged up railroad ties, painted them and bordered the soon-to-be green space to keep passersby from littering, while they prepped the grounds for greenery.

The tree Mr. Comer planted stands tallest in the garden and warms Mrs. Grace’s heart every time she takes a stroll around the corner.

“If he was living he would enjoy it,” said Mrs. Grace, pointing to another tree her late husband planted. “He liked to come around here just to sit out it in it and just enjoy.”

It wasn’t long before support came pouring in once word got out about what Ms. Grace was doing in the Barclay community. Lottie Sneed is a community builder for Strong City Baltimore, an organization that works to reinforce pillars of vibrant urban living such as safe streets desirable and diverse housing stock, quality public schools, a robust and educated workforce, and a deep sense of civic engagement. When she came to work at the The 29th Street Community Center, formerly known as the Barclay Recreation Center, Mrs. Grace welcomed her with open arms and showed around the neighborhood.

“The first day I came to work, I saw this woman out there picking up the trash and cleaning up the debris in the grass and I said to myself, ‘Well, she must be a good person, because she is out there cleaning areas that are nowhere near where she lived. So I went out and introduced myself and helped her clean,’” said Sneed.

“Mrs. Grace just wants to keep the neighborhood clean. She really cares about the community,” said Tarahn Harris, service coordinator at 29th Street Community Center. “She’s still involved. She wants the community to thrive and do well. And for a lady her age, she sure does get around.”

Sneed is also responsible for rallying up volunteers to ensure the upkeep of not only Mrs. Grace’s gardens, but the other community gardens that her efforts have inspired others to create. Anytime we have community work days and we can get some extra help, I try to get people around to Mrs. Grace’s gardens. It’s a lot for one person to do.”

Mrs. Graces’ small act of good citizenship has made a substantial impact on not only the beautification of the community but the people too. Because of her efforts the people who live in her neighborhood are slowly but surely taking more steps to keep the neighborhood clean—and outsiders too.

“[Gardens] beautify the community and your neighborhood,” said Mrs. Grace, who has lived in her home for over 50 years with no intentions of moving. “And when you get out and take care of your block, you get to know your neighbors. If everybody would pull their own, even keeping their front swept. It will make a difference.”

Mrs. Grace is hopeful that with the new redevelopments in the Barclay community, the residents moving in can help to restore the neighborhood back to its glory.