Stenie Simon was indifferent when she went to a climbing gym in Hampden with a group of friends. Then something caught her attention as they were about to leave.
It was a beautiful Black woman scaling the top of the climbing wall. It inspired Simon to want to climb consistently.
“I had a moment of pure awe, and I saw myself in that moment,” Simon said, adding that she and the woman were the only people of color in the gym.
The woman was Sih Oka-Zeh, director of community engagement for Pigtown Climbs, a nonprofit organization with a mission to make climbing more accessible to Black and brown people and to connect Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods to the outdoors. The group has been steadily planning and raising money to build an outdoor climbing and community space on what once was a vacant lot on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown, a majority Black neighborhood.
Simon not only went up to Oka-Zeh that day and explained how she inspired her, but also eventually became a part of the Pigtown Climbs effort.
In addition to a climbing wall, plans for the 4,400-square-foot space include a cafe, classrooms and meeting rooms, showers, and a food pantry. The space will also include an afterschool rock climbing program and possible collaborations with those who teach yoga and Zumba. Pigtown Climbs is planning to break ground in fall or winter of 2023 and hopefully have a soft opening in 2024.
Bri’Anna Horne, the founder of Pigtown Climbs, said she moved to Pigtown six years ago from Northeast Baltimore and immediately noticed that there wasn’t as many trees and there was little greenspace. An American Forests database shows that areas like Old Town, Pigtown, Broadway East and Franklin Square had up to 60% less tree coverage than wealthier areas like Roland Park, Federal Hill and Canton. Horne said she couldn’t imagine not having the peace the outdoors brought as a kid.
“It’s a privilege to not know what’s happening in the city, but once you do know, it’s a shame if you don’t put an effort to make a difference,” she said.
Horne had started climbing with her partner when she first came across the vacant lot during a plant giveaway with the group Citizens of Pigtown.
People didn’t think she was serious when she proposed the idea of building an outdoor climbing gym, she said. The nonprofit conducted a survey to understand what neighbors would want from the space and have built a community of volunteers and supporters.
Naomi Komuro said it was important to her to be in a space where women of color are moving a project of this nature forward. Komuro, who attended one of the nonprofit’s meetups and is now on the board, said she grew frustrated when she moved from Seattle and started doing outdoor recreation, but saw few people who looked like her.
“I think it’s about more than climbing. There’s people that come to our events and come to us because they just want to get outside and they want more access to nature,” Komuro said.
Pigtown Climbs recently gathered supporters during its first-ever in-person fundraising event, at Patagonia in Fells Point. The nonprofit began during the pandemic, but held virtual events and eventually a three-day hiking trip, climbing meet-ups, and two festivals when restrictions relaxed.
Attendees at Patagonia could explore different stations for camping and hiking, first-aid, foraging wild plants for food, a 3-D display of the future space, and rope and tent demonstrations. Several people also tried on puffy Patagonia jackets and vests.
Pigtown Climbs has raised around $300,000 toward the project and needs at least $400,000 more, according to Horne. They have enough to complete the front of the lot designated for greenspace.
Money is another barrier the nonprofit recognizes in certain outdoor recreation. There’s equipment to consider if one is climbing outdoors, and indoor gyms require membership fees. The closest climbing gym to Pigtown is Movement in Hampden, which is at least 20 minutes away by car. An individual monthly membership is $88 or $168 for a seven-day pass. For households, a monthly membership is at least $162 for the first two people and $30 extra for each person under 18, according to the gym’s website. Horne said their new space will have a sliding-scale model and volunteer options.
Oka-Zeh said she was excited to see how the group has grown and has even become friends with Simon, the woman who previously saw her at the gym. Oka-Zeh added that “a lot of what Pigtown Climbs has done is show people what can be done and let people explore.” Pigtown Climbs has also connected with other groups like Brown Girls Climb.
Before people started roasting marshmallows at the s’mores station in Patagonia, Horne left the audience with a couple of calls to action.
“Use your skills for more than making white men rich,” Horne said. “Use your passion to remind people that there’s still light in the world.”