Tibbels and Gornik (Handout photo)

New Song in Sandtown

Effective Compassion | Baltimore's New Song Urban Ministries is our Eastern region runner-up

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

BALTIMORE-As a teenager, Antoine Bennett was fearless. He was a corner boy, hanging out with a friend on a Baltimore street corner in the neighborhood known as Sandtown, selling drugs. They had a .32 automatic pistol and an attitude. On a June day in 1989, Bennett flashed the gun to a buyer. The man wasn't impressed: "If you got a gun use it." He shrugged and walked away.

Bennett knew the code: You can't insult someone like that and walk away. So he shot the man twice. People watched from their front steps. They all knew Bennett by name.

Bennett didn't know it, but two years earlier, just blocks from his drug corner, two white men-Allan Tibbels and Mark Gornik-had moved into the neighborhood. At first skeptical locals thought maybe the two men had come to buy drugs. Maybe they were undercover cops. Tibbels was hard to ignore: The bearded white man roamed around in a motorized wheelchair, the legacy of a basketball accident that left him with a broken neck. Eventually suspicion waned.

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Tibbels and Gornik knew that Sandtown hadn't always been poor. During the 1950s and '60s, the neighborhood was home to middle-class African-Americans like future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who attended public school there. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Diana Ross and The Supremes all performed at the neighborhood's Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue.

They knew that riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination damaged buildings in the neighborhood's business district. Many shops never reopened. Area manufacturing plants closed. More affluent residents fled to the suburbs, leaving behind the poor, unemployed, and addicted for young punks like Bennett to prey upon.

In 1988, after two years of hanging out and meeting the neighbors, Tibbells and Gornik formed New Song Community Church, made up of a few adults, more children, and one dog who met in the basement of a row house. After a year members were ready to tackle the dilapidated neighborhood, partnering with Habitat for Humanity to renovate boarded-up buildings.

That was 1989-the year Antoine Bennett went to prison. He was 22 when he left prison, after serving three-and-a-half years of a 10-year sentence. He came back to Sandtown without skills, expecting to be back on the corner before too long.

But when he walked across the snow toward his street, the neighborhood looked different. He thought maybe he'd gotten lost: He saw fewer boarded-up row houses than he remembered. Later he learned that dozens of his neighbors had become homeowners. A new sense of pride bubbled up within the community. He soon went looking for its source-New Song.

The tiny church had grown. Under the auspices of New Song Urban Ministries (nsum.org), the church and community tackled problems. They rehabbed houses. More than 300 previously vacant homes are now occupied by owners who helped pay for renovations with sweat equity-more than 300 hours per home. They started an after-school program that eventually grew into New Song Academy. Every child in the 2007 eighth-grade class graduated from high school in 2011.

That's not all. A doctor from the church started New Song Family Health Center. When residents asked for jobs, a New Song group formed an employment placement center that eventually found jobs for more than 250 individuals with criminal records, including Bennett.

He started out working on houses, including the one he grew up in. He worked for four years as a patient service representative at the health clinic before becoming an employment specialist at the jobs center. Often he passed the corner of Presstman and Stricker Streets, where he used to sell drugs and where he shot a man. The corner was still dangerous: In 2005 five shootings took place there.

New Song helped Bennett and another former drug dealer secure loans to open a combination coffee and convenience store in a New Song--owned building at the intersection. New Song members rehabbed the old building. They kept going even after a stabbing took place on the front stoop. Despite the danger, Bennett decided against installing Plexiglas. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2008, New Song proclaimed the store-Gerry's Goods-to be God's territory, not enemy territory. "The people are our Plexiglas," Bennett said.

No robberies, knifings, or shootings have happened near the corner store since its opening.

Now, Sandtown has changed. So many people in the neighborhood now own cars that parking recently switched from parallel to angled to provide more room. New residents are moving in. The population, which shrank to 10,000 people in the 1980s, has crept back up to 15,000.


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