Population loss and vacancy are the biggest problems facing Harlem Park. (Photo by Tiffany Ginyard)

There’s a buzz going around Harlem Park that change is coming.

But first, members of the Harlem Park West Community Association (HPW) are working to bring some old things back— like the activism and leadership that helped this neighborhood thrive in its heyday.

Harlem Park West Community Association was formed in April 2015, in response to the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black male who died in police custody, that same month. The board of directors is mostly comprised of people outside of the community, save the organization’s president, Joy Ross, who purchased her home on Fulton Avenue in 2014.

“We just get out there and get things done,” Ross told the AFRO. “We want the people here to know that, in spite of the current structure and conditions, we are people that really care.”

Historically, Harlem Park was a mixed-income Black community. Today, the median income is $27,000, the unemployment rate is 51.8%, and about 45% of the community is vacant, according to the 2010 Census. What was once a spiritual and cultural epicenter for Blacks living on Baltimore’s West side is now an eyesore. Vacant lots are littered with bulk trash, blocks of abandoned properties draw criminal activity, and desolate playgrounds give an air of hopelessness. This has been the scene in Harlem Park for decades too long.

In just eight short months, HPW have made great strides on the home front. The beautification process is well underway– scheduled neighborhood clean up days have brought residents out of their homes and closer together; trees are sprouting from green spaces that were once vacant lots covered in concrete; and solution-oriented conversations are being held at least twice a month at the Harlem Park West Community Association meetings.

However, the association’s biggest challenge so far has been boosting morale among the residents–people who, by and large, are scratching to survive and have lost faith in authority figures like the government and the police. They are all too familiar with broken promises– one being the “miracle interstate” project that was supposed to connect I-70 to downtown, now known as “the highway to nowhere,” and most recently the Red Line project, canceled by Gov. Larry Hogan last year. These were projects that would have brought major redevelopment and restoration to Harlem Park and the surrounding communities, but instead the blight continues.

“I know it sounds cliché, but the power really rests with the people. It always has and it always will,” board member Ronald Bailey, said. Bailey has been a community organizer for over 20 years and has strong ties to Harlem Park. His role on the HPW board is to organize resources through partnership development. “I know the potential this community has, I grew up here. And I refuse to lay down and play dead.”

Ross and her team say they are no longer waiting for things to turn around. The goal this year is to engage residents in what has already been started, and build more momentum from there. Part of the work is empowering and educating the residents on how to make change in their community, one household at a time.

“We just do,” Ross said. “We are teaching people to own their responsibility as citizens. We don’t need another piece of legislation or proposal to get out there and do what needs to be done.”

One of the strongest partnerships HPW has is with A Step Forward (ASF), a community outreach organization that focuses on getting people off the streets by providing housing and support services for individuals who are homeless, reentering the community following incarceration, recovering from substance abuse or facing other life-altering challenges.

“We work closely with the neighborhood association to try to utilize our resources to help assist in any way,” Lela Campbel, ASF’s founder and executive director, told the AFRO. “The clients we serve participate in trash pick up, assist with the door-to-door campaigns, and have a general commitment to this community.”

Harlem Park West has also joined hands with BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), TRF Development Partners, the Sports Mentor’s Association, Roots and Branches Charter School and Kirby Lane Association.

“Last year we set out to make positive change in Harlem Park West,” said Ross, “and it’s already happening.”