There never would have been a garden if Warren “Johnny” Shaw hadn’t gotten a summons from Baltimore City in 2008 to clean up an abandoned lot he didn’t even own. In fact, the City owned it, but the lot was an eyesore and Johnny agreed that it needed to be cleaned up.
Johnny started the work to clean the lot behind the 3200 block of Carlisle Avenue. Forty neighbors pitched in to get to the bottom of the trash, garbage, and dead animals all covered by weeds 15 feet high. They found the ruins of a barbeque pit built in the 1950s by Baltimore Colts player Buddy Young, who hosted parties attended by luminaries like Johnny Unitas. Johnny and his neighbors organized a work day with a bobcat to clear the mess, and the City hauled it away. The Buddy Young Barbeque Pit has become the focal point of neighborhood activities, after being patched back together by the neighbors.
Johnny was born and grew up on the 3200 Carlisle block. In the 1980s he joined the Army, toured the South playing sax and woodwinds in a band, and worked a stint in New York City at a printing press. When he returned in 1991, he didn’t like the changes that he saw. Before, the street was lined with tall oak trees that formed a shady corridor, but now the trees were gone, and the street looked naked and exposed. The birds were also gone. There wasn’t as much open land as there used to be. Peoples’ houses weren’t being cared for. His friends were gone. In his childhood, everyone’s doors were wide open and everyone knew each other. Now people didn’t interact.
Johnny is working to get people interacting again. He sees people exchange phone numbers at meetings, and they get to know each other through work on committees. At present, he works nights as a truck driver, which gives him plenty of time to think. Grant applications ask how the proposed project will build community; this has influenced how Johnny thinks and has trained him to look for ways to get people to do things together, in group efforts that raise their spirits.
It can take a long time for people to open up and come out of their shells. Johnny speeds things up by walking up to doors and knocking. “It’s necessary to be a nosy neighbor. I walk up to neighbors’ houses to find out what they’re up to. I have to. I live here and I want a safe neighborhood where people look out for each other, not hurt each other.” When people move into the neighborhood, Johnny comes calling with several other neighbors to meet the newcomers, bearing a package explaining the neighborhood code of conduct, along with flowers and explanations of community activities.
The most visible of Johnny’s projects is the Victorine Q. Adams Community Garden, which was proposed by a neighbor who gardens in her back yard and serves as master gardener. Johnny describes the garden as a “sustainable land area for community activities, a gathering place where neighbors can meet and greet. It’s a peaceful place for meditation.” A stage is being built behind the garden for music at the barbeques and meetings. The garden was preserved by Baltimore Green Space in 2015.
It’s important to Johnny that the garden produces wholesome organic vegetables for the neighborhood gardeners and the charitable organizations they distribute the vegetables to. But it’s even more important for the garden to be beautiful so that it sets a standard for the neighboring houses and yards to live up to. The neighborhood has an illustrious history as the former home of Buddy Young and the power couple Willie Adams and City Councilwoman Victorine Adams. The 3200 Carlisle Block Association works to ensure that the achievements continue in the present and into the future.