He's right. When you stand in the center of this football field in Northwest Baltimore, the grass framed by the backs of rowhouses, a pair of field-goal posts, and oak trees with leaves turning shades of yellow, orange, and red on a chilly late fall day, “You can feel the peace,” says Garrick Williams, the 62-year-old founder of the Park Heights Saints youth football program.
Widely known as the “Mayor of Park Heights,” a description he acknowledges with a wisecrack (“It ain’t an easy job,” he says), Williams, a one-time construction worker turned neighborhood do-gooder, is standing near the center of this piece of land in Lucille Park along Reisterstown Road on an early Friday evening in November. Twenty years ago, this was a notorious abandoned lot populated by drug dealers and addicts. And, even more recently, a bar used to operate on the park’s northeast corner, but it was razed seven years ago at Williams’ urging in favor of a parking lot. That’s where kids now get dropped off three nights a week for practices, led by Williams and dozens of other coaches, some of them former players, others former gang members, yet others Baltimore City police officers.
Not a fan of the cold, the “Mayor” is wearing several layers of Under Armour athletic gear, pants, and a knit hat and greets you with the dap of a lifelong friend. “That’s right, brother, that’s right,” he’s soon saying. Practice, for the Saints’ 10 teams made up of about 250 players ages 5 to 13, will start in an hour. So for now, Williams is happy to stroll around the field and soak up the scene, coach’s clipboard in hand.
He’s talking about the year’s worth of Jericho walks—meaning going seven times around the field—that community members did back in 2000 to take control of the field, when he pauses near the 50-yard line, his back to a setting sun, and puts the existence of this refuge in perspective. A quarter of the residents of zip code 21215, the primarily black neighborhood that abuts Pimlico Race Course, live in poverty, making it a breeding ground for violence, gang recruitment, and drug dealing in the surrounding houses and blocks.
“Things still go on in Park Heights, but it won’t go on here,” Williams says of the field. “This is like a sanctuary.”
Williams is a youth football coach with hundreds of children and roughly 45 coaches under his supervision per year but, without any hyperbole, he is much more. “To know him is to love him,” says Kiante Chase, an electrician from Dundalk and a father of three who coaches the Saints’ under11-year-old team.
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