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Long-time Lakelander preserves history, shares stories of neighborhood

Maxine Gross tells Lakeland's stories

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By KATELYNN WINEBRENNER

Maxine Gross tells Lakeland's stories
Maxine Gross is a fifth-generation resident of Lakeland, a former member of the College Park City Council, and chair of the city’s Restorative Justice Commission.
Photo credit: Katelynn Winebrenner

Maxine Gross’ father walked into their family’s Lakeland home one day in the 1960s and placed on the table a set of city plans depicting new homes, streets and sidewalks that matched the rest of College Park.

“It looked like nirvana,” Gross, who was in elementary school at the time, said. “It looked like paradise.”

“But then over time,” she said, “the plans changed, and ultimately something else was built. It was clear that it wasn’t for the people of Lakeland.”

As part of an urban renewal effort, the city destroyed 104 single-family homes, displacing families from their thriving community to make way for subsidized town houses and high-density apartments.

 Since then, Gross, a fifth-generation Lakelander who is now chair of the city’s Restorative Justice Commission, has committed her time to documenting and preserving the history of Lakeland and sharing the stories of so many who called the community home.

“She’s a visionary,” Lakeland Civic Association Vice President Ruth Murphy said. “She is one of those people that automatically thinks outside the box.” 

Gross, 64, is also chairwoman of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, whose website features historical photos and documents and a vision for Lakeland’s future. Featured photos show everyday life in Lakeland, starting in the early 1900s.

The heritage organization came about at a meeting of the civic association, of which Gross was once president.

“We were talking about the fact that the community had changed drastically from the one we knew when we grew up,” Gross said, “and that the people around us no longer knew the stories of the community.”

Eventually, Gross requested that the civic association separate from the Lakeland Community Heritage Project so the nonprofit could pursue more grant opportunities, which have funded the digital archive.

Current civic association President Robert Thurston, who attended the meeting that separated the two organizations, said Gross was perhaps the only member at the time who foresaw the success of the project.

More recently, Gross, along with Murphy, played a major role in ensuring that a new Lakeland community center will be included in the student housing development that eventually will replace Campus Village Shoppes.

The center is set to store a physical, historic archive of Lakeland as well, according to the complex’s developer, Texas-based LV Collective.

“Maxine [is] such an incredible gift,” Murphy said. “Not only to this community but to all of us because she takes the ego out of the work, and she is genuinely committed to the work itself.”

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, College Park renounced systemic racism and issued a formal apology to the Lakeland community for the damage caused by the city’s urban renewal initiative.

“I would not have believed that the city would recognize that what they had done was wrong  and that they would state that publicly,” Gross said.

However, Gross, who was once a District 2 city councilmember, said she wanted something more concrete from the city.

“Maxine was vocal,” Mayor Fazlul Kabir said. “She suggested that in order to implement what we stated in the resolution, there needs to be work, and that needs to happen through an organization or committee.”

Now, Gross is the chairwoman of that committee, the Restorative Justice Commission,  which focuses on creating plans to address the damage caused by urban renewal.

“I think her passion as well as her understanding and her involvement in the community is unmatched,” College Park City Councilmember Llatetra Brown Esters (District 2) said.

Gross is also on the advisory board of the University of Maryland’s 1856 Project, which is investigating the college’s historical ties to slavery and segregation, and is chairwoman of the College Park City-University Partnership board of directors. She also sits on the  board of directors of Streetcar Suburbs Publishing, the publisher of College Park Here & Now.

“She is an institution,” Kabir said. “She has so much knowledge, especially about Lakeland and the history behind it.”

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