It starts with accessibility. Although many in the outdoor industry might not relate to having difficulty getting outside, that in itself shows the relative privilege of those already participating.
In truth, the outdoors have not offered the open gate to all potential participants. Sports like indoor climbing retain a significant barrier to entry, while its outdoor counterpart seems almost unimaginable to the intentionally marginalized residents of urban spaces.
Outdoor spaces require resources. They necessitate things like time, money, transportation, and skills relating directly to the manner in which that space is accessed. For example, outdoor bouldering requires knowledge regarding the location of the boulder problem, how to climb, how to spot a climber safely, and how to lay crash pads at the bottom of the rock.
It requires costs such as gear, gas, and transportation. These costs turn the seemingly affordable activity of climbing into one of the more expensive outdoor sports. These knowledge barriers and financial barriers make up only two of the walls in this systemically exclusive industry. There are also traumatic barriers resulting from years of racially sourced systemic oppression that white people cannot identify with. Together, we have one inaccessible industry, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Pigtown Climbs is an organization based out of Pigtown, Maryland. Pigtown is a neighbourhood within Baltimore that has around 6,000 residents. According to an article by Oyin Adedoyin, 54 per cent of residents identifies as Black and 33 per cent live below the poverty line.
Baltimore, in itself, has a history of systemic racism that most clearly presented in the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015. The resulting action taken by oppressive forces became international news and identified a need for community space owned and operated by that community.
The protests following the murder of George Floyd would bring the residents of Pigtown together. The founder of Pigtown Climbs, Bri’Anna Horne, would partner with Group 930 LLC owners to create a space that would benefit the community. Horne, a climber herself, volunteered the idea for a non-profit climbing gym. Pigtown Climbs was born.
Amassing a team of eight women, one man, and a quiver of local businesses, Horne and her team of volunteer Directors would begin to pool their skills. As the entire organization runs off of volunteer work, the size of their board speaks to the value of the organization. While most of the Board’s Directors do call South West Baltimore home, not each member climbs.
Pigtown Climbs offers more than climbing. Director of Marketing Jelytza Padro described Pigtown Climbs as multitudes. “It’s not just about climbing, it’s more how this space can be utilized by the community completely.” Climbing is just one of the gateways to strengthening community values in health and connection with the outdoors.
This fits well with climbing’s community focused brand and takes it beyond its previous limitations. While climbers often consider their community in terms of climbing, Pigtown Climbs appraises community in terms of people. Whether a Pigtown resident climbs or not matters less than their input into the space.
For this reason, Pigtown Climbs has reached out to their community for help. “We are in the middle of a surveying effort to get more input. We want a lot of input to come from the community. We want to hear from as many voices as possible.”
As they await to hear from their neighbourhood, the climbing gym works to involve their community through virtual gatherings and fundraising. Although Pigtown Climbs will operate in large part due to funds raised by the community, they have also applied for community grants in order to get their foundation under their feet.
Raising funds comes with its own challenges, most notably the sheer magnitude of the cost. The facility will require $100,000 to break ground and around $500,000 to reach completion.
A big portion of that cost comes from the land itself. Although accessibility for Black and Indigenous, People of Colour has been prioritized, Pigtown Climbs defines accessibility in broader terms than these demographics. They hope to become accessible beyond the bounds of ADA recommendations and to be a safe-space for those in the LGBTQ community.
Padro reflected on why this is the case. “I think sometimes, in climbing we have all felt that someone tried to make us feel like we didn’t belong.”
In making this place accessible for everyone involved in the community, the land has to find a level gradient across the entirety of the property. This means building retaining walls before climbing walls and means testing the land itself for the chemicals that have become a staple of Baltimore’s land post-industrialization. This lot also once held parked cars for an auto shop, and, as such, there might exist toxic materials in need of removal.
In an effort to get the lot operational as quickly as possible, they have decided to leave the more complicated and expensive wall construction until the end. Padro smiled as she thought about the prospective future.
“We want the space to become of use as soon as possible. Before we get the front or the back finished, we will be using the space. We have a community campfire planned. We have a camp-in planned. If people want to experience what it is like to camp outside in a tent, they can have that experience even though we’ll be in the middle of the city.”
These events will expose people to outdoor living and will help assuage the concerns a person might have regarding the use of a tent. These make for strong foundational steps in making a life-long lover of outdoor spaces.
Padro also recognized the importance of bringing something valuable into the community for the community. “There is a pride that comes with the community when you see that something that hasn’t been touched in years is now beautiful and accessible.”
Once the front lot is complete, artists and instructors will be able to come in and teach classes to the residents of Pigtown. These programming options have become a focal point for Pigtown Climbs. They believe these programs get the most value out of a space.
This approach to a climbing gym creates a new method for communities seeking to add affordable climbing to their space. Pigtown Climbs has documented as much of their operations as possible because they do believe that these transferable methods could help another community facing similar access issues to those in Baltimore.
If this sort of climbing gym became more widespread, climbing might actually approach a level of accessibility that could permanently change the sport. Still, to reach such an unbelievable goal, we must begin with a strong foundation.
Pigtown Climbs has the capacity to become that foundation if climbers can embrace the value of their community. In Canada, many find themselves locked indoors and missing their favourite places on earth. While many pandemic-locked Canadians retain their ability to climb outside, some urban residents have yet to experience the outdoors at all.
Take the time and consider donating whatever you can to Pigtown Climbs. Get your friends to send along a dollar or five or however much you can spare. This climbing gym has the capacity to blossom if given love to grow.
For more about Pigtown Climbs, click here.
To donate, click here.
Did you like the artwork? They were composed by muralist Jaz Erenberg. Check out her work here.
For Oyin Adedoyin’s Baltimore Magazine article on Pigtown Climbs, click here.