By Tatyana Turner
Baltimore Sun | Mar 15, 2021 at 5:00 AM
For years, the 10-acre stretch of land along Frederick Road in
Southwest Baltimore was easy to drive by, considered nothing more than
A hundred sick and dying ash trees and long tangles of invasive thick
vines covered the hilly, brown patch. Kids used it as a cut-through;
others dumped trash or tires there. The land’s owner, Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, tried more than once to sell the plot.
No one wanted it.
But Pastor Michael S. Martin, the parish’s leader, saw something else
in that land: an opportunity to worship, to study and to reclaim the
neglected green space that was once a thriving urban forest.
In an effort that began two summers ago, worshippers,
environmentalists, neighbors and students have come together in a rare
collaboration involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest
Service. The volunteers cut down dead trees and hauled away loads
of branches and logs. In a newly created tree nursery, they’ve potted
1,100 poplar and willow saplings nicknamed “Baby Groots.” All of this
labor will bear life as they re-imagine their patch of land as a peace
park and work to make their campus more sustainable.
“I don’t know how to change the country. I don’t know how to change the
world. But I do know how to have an impact in my neighborhood where my
parish is,” said Martin, who has led the Christian, mostly Black church
The goal is to plant about 3,000 trees on the land, ultimately
repopulating the urban forest and creating an oasis with trails,
meditation stations, an amphitheater and vegetable gardens. Stillmeadow PeacePark,
as they call it, will be a place to help people who aren’t familiar
with the outdoors — including many of the churchgoers — connect with
Over time, as the saplings grow, and with the help of other additions
such as cisterns, rain barrels and solar panels, this piece of Baltimore
in the Irvington area will become more resilient to weather events such
“We need to use what we have to be a blessing to other people,” said
Yorell Tuck, who grew up attending the 32-year-old church and is now
director of operations for Stillmeadow Community Projects.
The Stillmeadow PeaceProject could be a model for neighborhoods here
and around the country, experts say, as majority Black communities
reckon with the environmental damage of policies like segregation and redlining that left them with more pollutants and less tree cover.
According to the Forest Service, the presence and health of forests in
cities is key to the resilience of communities and ecosystems.
Studies have proven the many benefits of a tree canopy to a city, from
less asthma to better water quality and reduced flooding. Areas with
fewer trees, scientists say, expose residents to higher temperatures,
and, in the case of the Stillmeadow area, severe flooding.
“You need to get to the history before you can get to the future,” said
Morgan Grove, a Forest Service research scientist, which is providing
$90,000a year for the next three years toward the effort.
The partnership is one of two sites in the country where the agency is
working to develop best practices to support healthy forests and
communities threatened by stresses like invasive plants, vines, deer and
the emerald ash borer.
The voracious Asian beetle feeds on ash trees, taking away water and
nutrients and killing the trees within a year. In the park, roughly 40
of the estimated 100 infected ash trees have been taken down so far.
Grove estimates their plans for the urban forest will take about 30 years to complete. And it will become a model.
“If it works in Baltimore, it can work in Detroit,” Grove said. “What’s
cool about it is that it has the enthusiasm of the congregation,
expertise of local nonprofits and universities as well as connections
with the students.”
that have joined the Stillmeadow work include Blue Water Baltimore,
Baltimore Green Space and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.
Students from Morgan State University, Coppin State University, the
University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Delaware
are also sweating on the hills to help plant a new, healthier forest.
Mark Cameron, the senior chief of watershed planning and partnerships
at the city’s Department of Public Works, has been helping with flood
mitigation to reduce stormwater runoff in the area, a part of the Gwynns Falls Watershed . He said officials are looking at other neighborhoods in the city where they can do similar work.
“It’s helping to create a bit of a haven. This is an important location,” he added.
Already, the church had developed into a neighborhood anchor. The
parish served as a cooling center during a 2017 heat wave and as the
go-to recovery spot after a 2018 storm that flooded the community. In that crisis, more than 7 feet of water rushed
along Frederick Avenue. Boats were needed to rescue passengers on a
city bus, and roughly 150 homes were destroyed. Members from rescue
organizations including Red Cross and Team Rubicon were housed at the
Stillmeadow church for two weeks.
Stillmeadow is now designated a Community Resiliency Hub Partner. Baltimore is among the first cities in the nation to
roll out “resiliency hubs,” places that help low- and middle-income
communities with supports like drinking water and battery power in
“There is really no limit of what they’re capable of doing for their
community,” Aubrey Germ, the climate and resilience planner for the
city’s Office of Sustainability,
said of the Stillmeadow community. “They have a very strong vision and
are pushing the bounds of what types of support and programs will be
beneficial to their most vulnerable neighbors, not only in crisis
situations but also in everyday living.”
So far, workers have installed rain barrels and cisterns behind the
church that can collect 600 gallons of water that will be used to water
the saplings. They’ve established an apiary and sold their own honey at
Christmastime and planted a line of young apple and pear trees along
Frederick Road, so people walking on the sidewalk can reach up and pick
a nonfiction author and professor of English, journalism and
environmental humanities at the University of Delaware, volunteers at
Stillmeadow each Saturday, often bringing at least 10 of his students to
help clear out the forest and learn about environmental injustice.
He believes that residents who live in urban areas have a harder time connecting with the green spaces around them.
“There is a notion that is where bodies are dumped and where violence
happens,” Jenkins said. “All human beings deserve to be surrounded by
nature, not just concrete surrounded by trees.”
The church is sketching out ideas for installations they hope will
bring healing, including a memorial for local veterans and a permanent
marker for families who have lost relatives to violence. Martin, the
pastor, also noted that people who haven’t been in nature can be afraid
of what they don’t know, such as the different insects, birds and the
raccoons, foxes and deer that live in the forest. He envisions
Stillmeadow can be an outdoor classroom for children and adults.
Yorell Tuck examines the damage to a tree from a beetle infestation
that has killed dozens of tall trees in a once-thriving urban forest in
Southwest Baltimore. The Stillmeadow Community Fellowship has teamed up
with several partners to restore the forest, create an urban oasis and
make the area more resilient to severe weather. January 22, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)
Tuck still remembers the magical feeling of running through the wooded
area and exploring the trails with her brothers when she was growing up
in the church. She used to be scared in one spot, where they had to
awkwardly shinny down a steep slope to get to a quiet part they called
Now, she’s reconnected with nature, and she walks the slope with confidence.
On a recent hike over
the rough-hewed paths, she called out the different trees and plants by
name. She can see all that is to come: Pews from the church will be
moved into meditation stations; stumps and other natural materials will
be used to create a playground; and the sunrise Easter service will be
held outside, in a clearing.
“Our Earth is a gift from God,” Tuck said, “and you’re supposed to take care of the gifts God gave you.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America,
an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program
that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black
life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner