Last June, residents of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood— with the support of the Baltimore Ravens, a nonprofit organization called Kaboom!, and Baltimore Housing—built a new playground in a single day. They had had concerns about the antiquated playground nearby, participants say, and rallied together to create a new one. Later, at a community meeting, the German Park Working Group, which organized the effort, and Baltimore Housing were presented with awards; the presenter was a community resident who had worked on the outdated playground decades ago.
“We had him come out and give the story of the original playground, and he gave the new residents the award,” says Chartruse Robinson, a longtime Reservoir Hill resident and former president of what is now the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC). “It was important for the continuation of legacy, that building up of what other people had done. They were continuing his work—they were building on what he had done.”
As RHIC Environmental and Sanitation Programs Director Teddy Krolik puts it, “It’s not Reservoir Hill ‘Improved’ Council, it’s ‘Improvement.’ It keeps on going, and I think that, literally and figuratively, building community is something that happens regularly.”
In mid-March—in an effort to harness and celebrate Reservoir Hill’s community spirit—RHIC and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) launched a project titled Voices on the Verge: Reservoir Hill. Right now, CoLab Radio’s site—tinyurl.com/reshill—features five multimedia pieces composed of interviews with residents about their relationship with the neighborhood and slide shows of pictures of the neighborhood past and present. There is also an introduction by Krolik, who hopes to add a new multimedia piece to the site once a month.
The project began to take shape in the fall of 2011. CoLab Radio provides a forum for communities working on new projects to document and share their work. Last fall, it put a prompt out asking community leaders what they would do if they had the site for a week; as a reader of CoLab, Krolik saw his community reflected in those he saw featured, and decided to submit a proposal for an oral history project.
“You can imagine these projects happening here,” he says. “It seems like Reservoir Hill more than other places in the city are engaged in these projects. . . . It’s not like somebody wakes up one day and says, ‘I’d like to change my neighborhood’ and the next day it happens. It’s a long series of events and it takes a lot of people and a lot of meetings, and I think I was trying to capture that using the words of people who actually do it.”
“Teddy’s project just embodied almost everything we believe in,” says Alexa Mills, founder and editor of CoLab Radio. “Just the idea that individual people who just live in a place have great ideas for their neighborhoods, for the future of their city or town or region, and that’s what Teddy was proposing—a chance for some of the people he works with every day to talk about the past, present, and future of Reservoir Hill and it was a great fit.” CoLab Radio’s prompt was a one-time competition for new contributors; Krolik’s was one of seven that were chosen as paid bloggers, Mills says.
The project features residents ranging from Elisa Lane, who moved to the neighborhood about three years ago from Philadelphia, to Russ Moss, a resident since the early ’80s who has seen the arc of improvement from a blighted neighborhood to one with a greater sense of community, though the neighborhood retains its share of urban problems. Moss says North Avenue marks a division within what was, prior to the 1950s, a connected neighborhood that stretched all the way from the current location of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to Druid Hill Park.
“North Avenue divided it, primarily along the racial lines, and so anything north of North Avenue was kind of . . . it had a very negative connotation, and some of that was shared by the people who lived here and the people who did not live here—between . . . the slum lords and all of those negative things. But to see that change happen and see the diversity and see people being able to ride their bicycles and park them out on the streets, and you see different people being able to walk, and to see that comfort level . . . It’s not all that it can be but knowing what it had been, I’m looking forward to, in any way I can, to help usher in more of the same.”
In Moss’ interview for the CoLab site, he details all he knows of the neighborhood’s history and when he first started to sense a change. The piece includes his personal photographs stretching back to the early ’80s, from Christmas parties and block parties to neighborhood cleanups that clearly show the extent of damage and trash that once plagued the community.
The history he provides is important not only to those outside of the community who might see it, but to newer residents like Lane, who moved to the neighborhood knowing nothing about it, or even the city as a whole, when her husband got a job here. She quickly became involved with the community’s greening effort, helping to develop the community garden and farm in order to feel like a part of the neighborhood.
“I came to this place two and a half years ago not knowing what the history was,” Lane says. “When I all of a sudden started to do stuff, people would talk to me about what used to be here, so it starts to paint a picture of what it is. But it’s something else to be able to see pictures of it.”
Lane says having a sense of community is important to her, and that Reservoir Hill is a place where residents have the power to bring ideas to fruition and get to know each other through the effort of doing so. “We’re trying to fill the void of what used to be there,” she says. “The commercial corridor where that used to happen. And now there’s things that are literally growing and creating those places, those intimate places where people can connect.”
Krolik sees evidence of this in the fact that Lane and Chartruse Robinson know each other and see each other often. “Miss Robinson is an overnight ER nurse, so they have no other natural way of ever running into each other,” he says. “They would have no other natural connection whatsoever—there’s not even a real coffeeshop or hardware store where they’d run into each other. The places where they meet now are out of their own literal self-construction.”
One of those places is the Whitelock Community Farm, where Lane spends much of her time and where residents like Robinson congregate. In a recent conversation, Krolik realizes the farm is coming up on its two-year anniversary, and comes up with the idea that Lane should throw a birthday party.
“We should,” she says. “It’s a good idea.”
Somehow, one gets the feeling that they will.