Greening rolls back blight in Reservoir Hill

Tree plantings, gardening, farm bring neighbors together

July 14, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

When Gerrie Okwesa moved to Reservoir Hill five years ago, she had no intention of staying long. Vacant rowhouses marred the block, and a fence obstructed one end of the street where she lived — put there by police, she was told, to disrupt the drug trafficking that plagued the neighborhood.

But the place grew on the teacher from Washington, and she's put down roots, literally. With help from nonprofit groups and the city, she and her neighbors have greened up the 700 block of Newington Ave., replacing dead and dying trees, planting flowers around them and even turning a trash-strewn vacant lot into a lush neighborhood garden brimming with crape myrtles, hibiscus, hydrangeas and daylilies.

"I really love opening my door and seeing trees and flowers and green stuff," she said.

Neighborhoods all over Baltimore are greening themselves, reflecting the city's campaign to improve urban life by making the landscape cleaner and greener. But Reservoir Hill, north of downtown, has plunged into it with an almost unmatched passion and organization, promoting community gardening on vacant lots, tree planting and healthy eating and even launching a farm on Whitelock Street, where a once-thriving business district deteriorated into an open-air drug market and eventually was demolished.

Now the products being peddled there include carrots, eggplant, scallions and swiss chard. The Whitelock Community Farm sells its harvest from a corner stand on Fridays and Saturdays.

Beautifying with greenery has long been a community cause, according to Rick Gwynallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. The umbrella neighborhood group launched its first greening initiative in 2004 and drew up a "green master plan" in 2007.

In recent years, residents have expanded their efforts to promote household energy savings, increase the tree canopy, expand recycling and convert vacant lots to parks or other community space. Environmental programs also have been integrated into the neighborhood school, John Eager Howard Elementary, and the city-run recreation center.

"A lot of communities could really do some of those things, but [Reservoir Hill residents have] really stuck with it over six or seven years now, before everybody else was doing it," said Cheryl Casciani, chair of the city's sustainability commission and an executive with the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Reservoir Hill has been particularly effective at building partnerships, said Alice Kennedy, sustainability coordinator in the city planning office, bringing residents, schools, nonprofits, businesses and communities of faith like Beth Am Synagogue together on its endeavors. The improvement council also boasts a rare luxury for neighborhood groups — a staff, including one person dedicated to working on environmental projects.

But Teddy Krolik, the council's 25-year-old environmental program director, said the residents are the driving force behind the greening campaign. For him, what's being done isn't as important as the process of engaging neighbors in the community, historically a Jewish enclave that became overwhelmingly African-American decades ago.

A few weeks ago, for instance, residents turned out in droves to help build a new playground and butterfly garden in German Park, also on Whitelock Street, which had been largely a concrete wasteland.

"You're getting people out of their houses really, I think, reaching common grounds when it is so easy in this kind of diverse neighborhood to fall into all sorts of divisions," said Krolik. "These kinds of projects find people working together who wouldn't often have that chance.

Erin Reilly said she's earned the nickname the "energy lady" for her missionary work going door to door talking with residents about how they can lower their utility bills by changing light bulbs, insulating pipes, caulking windows and turning the heat down when they're away. She's done much more herself, painting her roof a heat-reflecting white and having a solar hot-water heater and photovoltaic panels installed.

"They were all about saving money, everybody is," said Reilly, 41, a webmaster at Maryland General Hospital. "But they were really interested in the green aspect of it. It went across economic and educational levels."

The Whitelock Community Farm was launched by 10 residents looking to do something with the large vacant lot at Whitelock and Brookfield Avenue.

Inspired by a community garden operating just down the block, they began "guerrilla gardening" the city-owned land last year, as Elisa Lane, the farm manager, put it. They cleared grass and debris from the lot and worked topsoil and manure into the ground before planting corn, melons and a handful of other vegetables. In the fall, they erected a "hoop house" to keep growing through the winter.

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