Unlikely neighbors take first step in turning community around

November 09, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,jean.marbella@baltsun.com

Of all the things the rowhouse on East Oliver Street had been over the course of its lifetime, the most recent was what some locals delicately called a gentlemen's social club.

That would explain the huge pedestal bed surrounded by mirrors and bolted to the floor that had to be ripped out as the house was renovated to offer quite different services: The Spiral Dance Womyn's Center & Bookstore.

It is an unlikely feminist outpost in an impoverished neighborhood of boarded-up houses and corner drug dealers. With its patchouli-scented, Our Bodies, Ourselves vibe, it seems not just from another place but another time as well.

But Laurie Kendall, one of the co-founders, would dispute that she is a sister from another planet. And after just 1 1/2 years in the neighborhood, she seems very much at home as she high-fives one of the men who run a garage across the street - they hadn't seen each other since their guy, Barack Obama, won the election - and asks about his grandson.

No one in the African-American neighborhood was quite sure what to make of Kendall and her partner, Bobbie DeVoll, when they bought the rowhouse at 2505 E. Oliver in March 2007 and started transforming it. For one thing, they were white. And a lesbian couple - something Kendall said they neither advertised nor hid.

"Nobody really understood us when we said we're starting a women's bookstore and women's center," said Kendall, 48, an adjunct professor at Towson University and UMBC. "They said, 'In this neighborhood?' I would say, 'Can you think of one that needs it more?' "

The neighborhood watched as the women, aided by friends and volunteers, started tearing down walls, replacing the floors and scooping out the house. The bookstore, cheerily decorated with goddess banners and handicrafts, heavily perfumed with incense and candles, also serves as a venue for GED classes and programs in art, wellness and entrepreneurship.

That push to empower women caught the eye of the Open Society Institute, which will announce tomorrow that Kendall is one of eight "social entrepreneurs" to receive one of the group's community fellowships. The $48,750 grant will allow her to give up her teaching positions and devote herself full time to the center.

If Kendall and DeVoll initially were outsiders to the neighborhood, it didn't take long for them to be accepted.

Six weeks into their renovations, Kendall forgot to deadbolt the back door, and someone kicked it in and stole their power tools. After the police came, took a report, dusted for fingerprints and left, a still-stunned Kendall and DeVoll, who is an elementary schoolteacher, stood outside with their arms around each other. Slowly, a couple of men from the hack service across the street came by and stood with them, not sure if they should put their arms around the women but telling them they had friends in the neighborhood and shouldn't be scared away. A homeless man they had befriended told them he'd pass the word that no one should mess with them.

"And no one has," Kendall says now, her eyes welling up.

What otherwise would seem like a naive, do-gooding effort is countered by Kendall's sincerity and her decidedly non-limousine liberal background: She is from modest means - growing up, her family occasionally had to take charity, and her dyslexia prevented her from learning to read until her 20s or enter college until her 30s. She ultimately received a fellowship to study at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she received a doctorate in American studies.

For their bookstore and center, she and DeVoll purposely chose a neighborhood that hadn't been gentrified - which they fear only pushes the residents and their impoverishment to another area without solving the underlying social and economic problems.

"Intellectually, I see all the problems here," she said. "But I also have a vision of a beautiful, multicultural community owned by the people who live here."

The center remains a work in progress - construction material butts up against computer equipment, ductwork next to a pottery kiln. But already, one woman who took a GED prep class at the center successfully got her certificate, and another woman was motivated to buy a house a couple of doors down and start renovating it as well.

Stained-glass decorations and other crafts made by women who have attended classes at the center are on sale in the bookstore, and recently, a group of alternative health providers gave a wellness clinic upstairs. There is always coffee on, and tea, for anyone who wants to hang out.

In back, a brick shed that apparently was once used for pit bulls has been torn down, and the bricks used to create a koi pond and planters of herbs. All the work was done by female volunteers, although they turned to the guys in the garage for help with the heaviest work - ripping out an ancient radiator.

Kendall hopes that their transformation of one house on one block can spark a larger transformation. She envisions the center providing women with the startup skills and support to create their own businesses, or to buy their own houses. She's already actively lobbying in the neighborhood for others to start a companion center that would focus on boys and men.

But first things first.

"A lot of women in this neighborhood," Kendall said, "don't allow themselves to dream of what is possible."

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