Classical music with a cookout: O’Donnell Heights and Baltimore Symphony Musicians link up for community-healing event

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A mural painted outside the O’Donnell Heights chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Michelle Holmes was sitting in her house watching the news on March 28 when she heard a barrage of pops outside.

“I just heard all them shots,” said the longtime O’Donnell Heights resident. “I know I heard about 45 or 47 shots. Thank God nobody was killed.”

The shooting broke out just before 4 p.m., as students were walking home from nearby Graceland Park Elementary/Middle School and Holabird Academy. Four people were wounded in the mass shooting. Police found two victims in the 6200 block of Boston Street and two others at an area hospital. Investigators marked about 40 shell casings found nearby.

Holmes, treasurer for the O’Donnell Heights Tenant Council in the neighborhood’s eponymous public housing complex, said such bloodshed isn’t as common there as when she arrived in 1985.

“Every weekend somebody was being killed,” she said. “We had the Jamaicans on one side controlling and another group controlling the other side… It was a mess back in the ’90s.

In the aftermath, the neighborhood’s council representative, Councilman Zeke Cohen (1st District), said he and community leaders sought something to lift families’ spirits, if even for a day, and bring the neighborhood together.

What they’ve come up with is a block party as unique as any in Baltimore, with a cookout, snowballs and games for the kids–and world-class orchestral musicians as the headlining entertainment.

While Michael Lisicky, a member of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians, knows the event won’t solve the neighborhood’s problems, he said “it’s gonna give them a chance, hopefully, to have an hour or two of peace and fun and community.”

“Music in the Heights” is set for May 18. The Baltimore Symphony Musicians, known for filling fundraisers, schools and public spaces with the sounds of classical music, have planned the event with Cohen’s office and community groups and religious leaders, including the Zion Baptist Church of Christ and the City on a Hill Improvement Association (CHIA).

“It’s really a tremendous way of showing how they care, how they want to help the community heal,” said Holmes. “Orchestra music like that, I think that is gonna be something that is beautiful.”

The neighborhood off Broening Highway and I-95 sits in an underserved pocket of the city frequented by heavy industrial and commuter traffic. At its center is the public housing complex, comprised of homes built to house factory workers in World War II that were last renovated in 1983.

Once plagued by rampant drug trafficking and associated violence, it’s achieved some degree of transformation, with two-thirds of the once-roughly 900-unit complex razed to make way for new development. Shootings are down—albeit not quite absent—in recent years.

Additionally, Councilman Zeke Cohen said “there’s been a real effort by community members to develop cohesion across the neighborhood, and to partner with other communities in the area.”

A little less than two years ago, residents formed CHIA, unifying historically divided neighborhoods around Broening Highway, such as Medford and “the Heights,” under one group. Neighbors have collaborated on a mural at the nearby Boys and Girls Club, and successful applied for a $10,000 Spruce Up grant to beautify the area.

But this past March, following a year of what Cohen characterized as “really minimal violence,” terror broke out with the mass shooting that left four hospitalized.

“This shooting took place in broad daylight, right after both Graceland Park Elementary/Middle School and Holabird Academy were dismissed for the day,” Cohen said. He visited the latter school the following day to talk with students. One girl told him she was with her mother and 3-year-old brother nearby when gunfire erupted. “They saw and heard everything.”

Lisicky, an oboist who’s played with the BSO since 2003, said he learned of the shooting just after Catherine Pugh’s press conference that day apologizing for her “Healthy Holly” book deal. “At the end of that bizarre thing, [WJZ-TV] mentioned that four people were shot in the O’Donnell Heights neighborhood.”

An East Baltimore resident, he’s familiar with the locale, saying it’s “largely been forgotten.” He noted that if the shooting had “happened in a more affluent area, it would have received extensive coverage.”

He thought back to 15 months earlier, when the Baltimore Symphony Musicians performed at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School in the wake of Baltimore Police Det. Sean Suiter’s yet-unsolved mysterious on-duty shooting death, which prompted a neighborhood-wide lockdown. “So just like Harlem Park, I contacted the local school and Zeke,” he said.

After an initial conversation, the musicians spoke with the Tenant Council, CHIA and Zion Baptist Church of Christ nearby. All sides agreed it was a good opportunity to help a community dealing with shared trauma.

The event they’ve planned will start around 12:30 p.m. next Saturday in front of the Boys and Girls Club at 1200 Gusryan St.; Cohen said his office has also gotten permission to block off surrounding roads.

For the musical selections, Lisicky said they’re planning to bring along a brass band to play traditional marches, “some Renaissance-type music” and–to meet a far more modern special request from Graceland Park Elementary students–an arrangement of K-pop group Red Velvet’s single “Bad Boy.” (“If this isn’t community outreach, I don’t know what is,” Lisicky joked.)

Holmes said it’s a much-needed chance for residents to relax weeks after they were left reeling from the shooting. “Just have fun and enjoy yourself,” she said. “Bring your kids out, blankets, chairs, whatever you want.”

An earlier version of this story quoted Holmes saying there was prevalent violence in O’Donnell Heights in the ’80s, but she later amended her quote to say she meant during the ’90s.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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