Overcoming adversity in Baltimore, one painted door at a time

Faculty and students partner with community association to restore abandoned buildings in Baltimore

By Molly Cochran

Paint spilled in Mary Beth Akre's class.A gallon of white paint spills on the floor, and students race to clean it up. The students are busy creating windows and doors to spruce up abandoned homes in Baltimore’s Harwood neighborhood. They don’t want to lose the paint they will need to complete the project; luckily, they manage to salvage most of it.

“We met adversity, and we overcame,” Mary Beth Akre, ’80, MFA, professor of fine arts, tells the students.

Some communities in Baltimore face their own adversity, including dealing with the presence of abandoned buildings that detract from their neighborhoods. This project, initiated through the Harwood Community Association, is the recipient of a Homewood Community Partners Initiative Spruce-Up Grant, through the support of the Central Baltimore Partnership. This creative community endeavor offers a way to beautify and enliven the neighborhood. The project helps restore, secure, and give a facelift to the exterior of 30 buildings along parts of Baltimore’s Greenmount Avenue between 25th and 29th streets.

As part of their Introduction to Painting class, Akre’s students enthusiastically volunteered to transform plain pieces of plywood into realistic, hand-painted windows and a front door for each home. The students painted curtains and a cat in one of the living room windows to help transform the abandoned building’s exterior into a practical and inviting future home.

“This is a gift of love to the community,” says Akre, who incorporates service-learning in her classes as a way to bring the Ignatian mission to life for her students. “I am so proud of my students—and so humbled by their contributions.”

Akre’s class is one of at least 35 Loyola courses per semester that incorporate community engagement or service in Baltimore, according to the Center for Community Service and Justice.

Door installation with Harwood Community AssociationArt Installation

On a rainy Saturday in December, the sound of a power screwdriver and a sense of excitement fill the air as the first door and window are placed on one of the abandoned homes in the neighborhood. Community members, local business owners, organization representatives, and the Harwood Community Association gather to celebrate the installation of the first pieces.

Evan Skalski, ’19, a communication major with a specialization in digital media and journalism and a minor in studio art, is happy to be part of an initiative that helps show Baltimore in a positive light.

“I feel like people base their opinions off appearances. The abandoned buildings in Baltimore don’t represent the true meaning of the city,” says Skalski. “By participating in this project, we can provide a visually appealing product and make people feel welcomed.”

Community Leadership

Aaron Kaufman, community project manager at the Central Baltimore Partnership, helped Miller Roberts, president of the Harwood Community Association, apply for the grant to fund the project. He notes that this initiative is completely driven and led by the community.

“What I love about this project is people can come together,” says Kaufman. “It’s about making it happen and giving residents a voice who haven’t had one in the past.”

A group photo of Akre, her Intro to Painting students, Miller Roberts and Yvonne Fisher from the Harwood Community Association.

Billy Friebele, MFA, assistant professor of fine arts, plans to continue to contribute to the Harwood Community Association project in his Public Art course this semester, when students in Akre’s Drawing with Color class will also continue to paint windows and doors for the project. Friebele’s students will learn about applying for funding and will work on a painting project that will further enhance the community.

“This is a vital learning experience because the goal is to make artwork that is valuable not only in an academic environment, but also art that speaks to a much wider audience and incorporates the feedback from the community,” says Friebele.

Long-term Hopes

Loyola got involved with the project after Kate Figiel-Miller, assistant director for service learning, met Yvonne Fisher, a representative with the Harwood Community Association, at a community event.

“We hope this is a prelude project to something that fixes up the houses and gets them sold,” says FigielMiller. “This is a surface fix, but the long-term goal is to have the homes lived in.”

Roberts is thankful to have Loyola’s help in this community project.

“Being able to count on Loyola is key, because their students love to get involved in the community,” says Roberts. “We are looking to make the corridor come back to life.

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