Baltimore is often called "The City of Neighborhoods." Highlandtown is famous for white marble steps; Little Italy is marked by painted window screens; and Fells Point is the place for pubs. Then there's Sandtown, known mostly for frequent appearances on the nightly news.
In recent years, however, Sandtown's reputation for drugs and homicide is slipping as the neighborhood is gradually being restored.
The transformation began in 1986. That year Allan Tibbels, a quadriplegic and former youth worker, moved his wife and two young daughters into one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods. He and his wife Susan helped found the New Song Community Church, which has since expanded to include a Community Learning Center, a family-health clinic, a job-placement program, a traveling children's choir, and a Habitat for Humanity affiliate that has refurbished 150 Sandtown homes in a 12-block area since 1989. Between 8,000 and 10,000 volunteers per year come to Sandtown to work on Habitat projects.
New Song's reception area in the Fulton Street facility is painted white with bright blue and yellow accents. Mr. Tibbels works out of a glassed-in office beside a wide common room. His collection of city skylines-Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.-hangs on the walls with an assortment of basketball paraphernalia.
Mr. Tibbels is just finishing a meeting with Bank of Maryland officials about financing for the New Song Center, which will house the expanded Learning Center, church facilities, and a basketball court. He shows off a new architect's model to Fitt Bennett,
who coordinates the volunteers.
Mr. Tibbels swings his wheelchair around to close the door. The office is handicapped biased-it's a little difficult to find a chair. He is unassuming, with a steady expression, dark features, a beard, and glasses.
He speaks in a monotone whether cracking a dry joke or giving an order. Either way, everyone in the office listens. Staff members say he is a tough boss, a perfectionist who insists that no one cut corners on the homes they restore.
He talks readily about growing up in Pikesville, about 10 miles west of the city, in a close Lutheran family. In his early teens he struggled with the '60s drug culture, but committed his life to Christ at 17. He later married Susan, his high-school sweetheart, and together they began working with troubled teens.
In 1981 Mr. Tibbels, a diehard basketball player, drove for a layup and came down with a broken neck. He spent five weeks in a trauma ward and several times the doctors believed he would die. It was three more months before he could go home, and he was not always an optimistic patient. The recovery time gave him a chance to focus on Scripture, particularly the book of Job. He now has only enough use of his hands to operate an electric wheelchair.
Five years after the accident, he and Susan moved to Sandtown. It was a theological decision motivated by an intense desire for racial reconciliation. "We think this is where Christians should be, in places of hurt and pain and need," Mr. Tibbels says.
New Song, he continues, offers "tangible hope" for people like William Johnson, who will receive the next Habitat home provided he puts up enough "sweat equity."
"I've lived in Sandtown for over 30 years," says Mr. Johnson. "I've seen a lot of people come in with all kinds of ideas and drag money in from all kinds of places to fix the neighborhood up, and the neighborhood just went down even further. But the New Song Ministry has done a lot, for individuals, and not just the women and children but for men, too. Foundations start with men."