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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen12:37 pmOct 25, 20170

A long-neglected park in Johnston Square is finally getting an upgrade

Public and private boosters of the Ambrose Kennedy project call it a symbol of redevelopment in East Baltimore

Above: Rebuild Johnston Square president Regina Hammond, one of the residents who pleaded with city officials over the years to take better care of the park, at the Ambrose Kennedy Park groundbreaking. (Fern Shen)

Battling crime, blight, poverty and other challenges, residents of Johnston Square knew they had a potential weapon in Ambrose Kennedy Park.

But that weapon had been engulfed by weeds, trash and darkness for so long that some residents were unaware that there even was a park.

Community clean-ups could only go so far when pleas to the city to cut the grass, fix divots in the basketball court, install outdoor lights and build restrooms went unanswered.

“We weren’t getting any traction,” said Regina Hammond, a longtime resident and president of Rebuild Johnston Square. “The place was scary – dark and all overgrown.”

That’s about to change as the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Parks & People Foundation undertake a $1.2 million upgrade of Ambrose Kennedy, supported by a host of city, state, federal, corporate and foundation funders.

Ambrose Kennedy Park, originally dedicated in 1951, is getting an overhaul. (Fern Shen)

Ambrose Kennedy Park, originally dedicated in 1951, is getting an overhaul. (Fern Shen)

“We pray the park’s reopening will be seen as a symbol of better times and brighter days for all,” said Rev. Ray Anthony Cotton, pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, at yesterday’s groundbreaking.

Plans include a swimming pool and splash pad, two new basketball courts, flowering shade trees, walking paths, a landscaped amphitheater and an open grass playing field.  BGE has promised to donate lighting.

Also included in the package: bathrooms with changing areas. Currently, the only restroom for users of the park’s small pool is a portable toilet, which often could be found toppled on its side.

Anchoring Redevelopment

As dignitaries gathered for the groundbreaking, workers could be seen clearing land on the 1.75-acre parcel located between Latrobe Homes and Johnston Square Elementary School.

From left, Scott Goldman, of The Sixth Branch, XX, of TRF, Regina Hammond, of Rebuild Johnston Square, Lisa Schroeder of Parks & People Foundation. (Fern Shen)

From left, Scott Goldman of The Sixth Branch, Thomson Kao of TRF Development Partners, Regina Hammond of Rebuild Johnston Square, Lisa Schroeder of Parks & People Foundation and Reginald Moore, recently-appointed director of Recreation and Parks. (Fern Shen)

The project is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer, officials said. But according to Parks & People project manager Steve Preston, that’s just Phase I.

Eventually, when the city acquires and demolishes adjacent properties on East Chase and Valley streets through the state’s Project C.O.R.E., the park will double in size, Preston said.

“We want to create a quality park – we see it as a model,” he said, adding that the partners hope it will anchor a number of redevelopment efforts in the area.

The non-profit TRF Development Partners, for instance, is overhauling 30 rowhouses for families that earn less than the median area income. On nearby Greenmount Avenue, the venerable Yellow Bowl restaurant is about to open under new ownership.

“We really think it’s going to be the heart of Johnston Square,” said Parks & People CEO Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder.

A major turning point was the $427,000 grant the project received from the National Parks & Recreation Association last year. But long before that, Schroeder said, “a really strong local partnership was in place to seize every opportunity.”

The involvement of the faith and community group BUILD was key, said Hammond, who has lived in Johnston Square for more than 30 years.

BUILD and the veterans’ group, The Sixth Branch, were early supporters, organizing clean-ups and repairs. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation was also instrumental.

Hammond and her neighbors started Rebuild Johnston Square four years ago hoping to make the community more livable and to give young people something to do.

At times, it was a hard slog. “I saw development everywhere but where I live,” she recalled. “Now, earth is being moved!”

Keith Hammond's shirt said it all. (Fern Shen)

Keith Hammond’s shirt said it all. (Fern Shen)

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