Everybody Loves Grace: Barclay resident beautifies community with green thumb

Tiffany C. Ginyard | 12/9/2016, 6 a.m.
Grace Comer and the garden at Guilford Avenue and 21st Street go way back.
Grace Comer has been a resident of the Barclay Community for over 50 years. She has served as block captain, adopted two lots and transformed them into gardens that beautify neighborhood for residents. Her civic commitments have caught fire and inspired other beautification projects throughout Barclay and the city at large. Courtesy Photo

— 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.”