I grew up in Homeland in North Baltimore — a strong neighborhood by most measurements and a wonderful place to be a child. But it was also missing something. In the summertime, as a teenager, I used to like to drive south on York Road to Greenmount, go east on North Avenue, and south on North Patterson Park Avenue. I was unaware of potential accusations of voyeurism; I just knew that it was a lot more fun when it was hot outside to be on a street where people are sitting on their stoops or on lawn chairs on the sidewalk, exchanging stories and selling and eating snowballs, than it was to be stuck in an air-conditioned living room in North Baltimore.
I wouldn't get out of the car though, because I'm white, and everyone I saw on North Patterson Park was black. I assumed there was a barrier there.
But now I work with people in these neighborhoods every day. And when they invite me to their meetings, I forget that I'm sometimes the only white person in the room. It seems that they don't notice either. I work at the Community Law Center, a public interest law firm where we represent and work with community-based organizations in their efforts to revitalize Baltimore neighborhoods and to have their voices heard in the development process. What is so inspiring about this work is that the "poor, downtrodden" neighborhoods I admired when I was growing up for their character and vibrancy are even stronger than I imagined from my car with the windows rolled down.
Recently, I was at a meeting for Fayette Street Outreach, a community association in Southwest Baltimore. A representative from the city came to the meeting to present a design for the renovation of a park in the neighborhood. Neighborhood residents had fought for the park in the 1960s and convinced the city to build it. Now, decades later, it is not in good shape. A couple years ago, members of Fayette Street Outreach asked the city to put some basketball hoops in the park because neighborhood children were playing basketball in the street and adults were concerned about someone getting hit by a car. An initiative was started to install the basketball hoops, but then it lost momentum.
Now, the city is back with a plan, but it doesn't include any basketball hoops. At the meeting I attended, the city presented the plan for the community's feedback, but when community members said all they really wanted was basketball hoops, the city representative stonewalled them and said that "every neighborhood can't have everything." Residents said if it was a question of money, they would clean up the playground themselves so the city wouldn't have to pay a crew — they just want basketball hoops. The only response from the city representative was that she was concerned about "activities" happening in the park.
There was still no positive response when the neighbors (about 20 adults and about six children) said they would take responsibility for the park, keep their eyes on it and make sure "activities" that shouldn't be happening there don't. It was heartbreaking to hear a 10-year-old boy articulate the reasons his neighborhood needed a basketball hoop (among them, "the little kids don't have anywhere to play") and to see a representative of the city we all love tell him it just wasn't possible. We're going to try to prove that it is.
I have confidence that Fayette Street Outreach will find a way to get its basketball hoops. But this story is about something more than a set of hoops. I hope the people who think of some areas in Baltimore as "hopeless" or "scary" will put aside their preconceptions and take a minute to consider the incredible inner strength of Baltimore communities that do not always have the economic or political means to meet even the modest requests of their residents.
At the Community Law Center, we use the law to help communities meet these requests. Our work is secondary to and inspired by that of our clients, whose strength, character and wisdom motivate us every day.
I am so proud to be part of this strong city, and I hope other Baltimoreans will join me in seeing past the boarded-up facades of vacant houses and overgrown playgrounds and into the hearts of our neighborhoods, and appreciate the human capital within them.
Christina L. Schoppert is a staff attorney with Community Law Center Inc. in Baltimore. Her e-mail is email@example.com.