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Something Old, Something New

St. Francis Neighborhood Center holds community greening to promote unity in Reservoir Hill

Frank Klein
St. Francis' Sarah Tarighi (left) and Corinne Handy hope their project will bring neighbors together.

By Phoebe Bright | Posted 4/14/2010

It's a sunny Wednesday afternoon and a group of Reservoir Hill neighbors are getting dirty. Adults and children wielding shovels, wheelbarrows, and seedlings have descended on a vacant lot across the street from the St. Francis Neighborhood Center on Linden Avenue. Some of the kids work diligently, patting down soil around new plants; others run around showing people worms and enthusiastically watering everything in sight--the seedlings, the soil, and their peers.

"We got to learn about Mother Earth," says 11-year-old resident Nikeva Riley, a student in St. Francis' after-school program. "And we gave the earthworms some good soil." Passers-by, both on foot and in vehicles, stop to ask questions about the project, which St. Francis calls a "greening."

The primary goal is to improve the vacant lot both visually and environmentally--but it also serves another purpose, according to Corinne Handy, St. Francis Neighborhood Center's volunteer coordinator. Handy says the event, and others like it planned for the future, help bring together this community, which has struggled for decades with crime, poverty, and disinvestment.

In the 1960s, middle-class residents fled city neighborhoods, including Reservoir Hill, leading to blight and urban decay. Over the years, multiple groups and organizations have tried to revitalize the area, which sits at the edge of Druid Hill Park, in fits and starts. Investors have come in and purchased buildings here, city initiatives like Project 5000 attempted to lure homeowners and rehabbers to take on some of the most decrepit buildings, and some intrepid city residents and urban pioneers have bought into the area. Most notable among that last group, perhaps, is Adam Meister, whose Buy-a-Block Project urged prospective homeowners to buy up vacant homes on city blocks, renovate them, and reclaim the neighborhood. "More responsible people live on the block now," Meister says of the street he invested in. "Empty houses cannot clean themselves."

Though Reservoir Hill has been predominantly a low-income neighborhood in recent years, the gradual increase in investors and homeowners has created something of an income divide in the community. The St. Francis Neighborhood Center's greening project was an attempt to create some solidarity and, according to an e-mail sent to City Paper by Handy to publicize the event, to let people know that Reservoir Hill is more than just another "bad neighborhood" in need of revitalization.

"I don't like the word 'gentrification,'" says Father Tom Composto, executive director of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center, which has operated in Reservoir Hill for more than 35 years. "Because that turns it into a class issue." But Composto, a resident of the neighborhood since 1963, says things like elevated property taxes, which come into play as home values increase, are a concern for some residents of the area.

Meister, who has lived in Reservoir Hill since 2003, says no one needs to really worry about the neighborhood becoming gentrified: "It is a poor neighborhood and it always will be," he says. "There is too much subsidized housing."

Sarah Tarighi, assistant director for St. Francis, estimates that about 89 percent of Reservoir Hill's families currently live below the poverty line. She says that many juggle multiple jobs and don't have the time or energy to attend community meetings in the evenings; others are involved in their own blocks, but not the neighborhood at large. Community greenings can help draw these residents in. In an e-mail sent to City Paper, Handy calls the greening "an attempt to beautify the neighborhood, but to also build a network of solidarity that connects community members rather than divides."

"Greening has become a part of the culture," says Rick Gwynallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, a community organization that's done multiple beautification and improvement projects in the neighborhood. "One hundred houses in Reservoir Hill signed up for the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge . . . Five years ago no else besides us was doing greening projects, now more people are taking things on on their own."

Handy says St. Francis is planning another greening event in the neighborhood in the fall.

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