“Now when it’s residents creating their own vision together — new residents and old residents alike creating a vision — that’s obviously not gentrification.”
Babatunde Salaam, 21, lives at the corner of Whitelock St. and Eutaw Place. For the past five years he has worked as a youth designer at New Lens/Kids on the Hill, a youth-led community arts group dedicated to social change in Reservoir Hill. This past summer he served as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Whitelock Community Farm, and he is currently enrolled at Baltimore City Community College. He wishes that Reservoir Hill had a late-night food option for residents.
Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Babatunde Salaam in December 2011 as part of “Voices on the Verge: Reservoir Hill,” a community oral history project that features Reservoir Hill residents talking about their personal relationship to the neighborhood. These spoken narratives represent the actual words, rhythms, and feelings of Reservoir Hill residents, though the order of certain passages has been re-arranged to create a more coherent flow.
Babatunde clears buried asphalt on the future site of Whitlelock Community Park (7/9/11)
I came to Reservoir Hill straight from Mercy hospital downtown, so I didn’t really have much of a choice. So that just means I was born here. So that’s 21…about to be 21 years. I always felt lucky that I had a park nearby. I always felt lucky that I had people walking around but not just on their stoop only. I think that’s one of the main things I noticed–there’s a lot of greenery.
I always did feel like, “Why aren’t there any businesses around here?” And I still do now. Especially when I became a teenager. I was frustrated, I guess, because sometimes in my neighborhood we just –people act as if you know, you have to go to work and that’s it. “I’m going to work, I run to my car I drive off to work and that’s it.” And you don’t feel that connection.
And I’ve always tried to do that, that’s part of the reason why I clean up my neighborhood. I feel like if you see a better looking community aesthetically, then you’ll feel more invested in it, so then you’ll feel more invested in other people. And sometimes I don’t understand why—like, OK, for example, one day I was like cleaning up my block. And I had just finished cleaning up and this guy just drops a bottle and a bag of McDonalds right there. Didn’t say anything—he saw me—it was almost as if he was like, “Well here’s one more thing to help you out.” But if you’re going to do that, at least speak to me so that we can build something.
I finally got the impression that not every neighborhood has drug dealers. I guess part of me kind of thought that was normal. And then I kinda realized, Oh man, that’s really not normal. And that was disturbing. I also noticed that there was transit in other cities. I started travels, and I was like, “Why do we not have a better subway system? Why do we have a terrible transit system, in general? Why does it take me an hour and a half to get to a school that’s about forty minutes to walk to? And by bus?” Those types of things. And I was frustrated that there’s no place to eat after ten around here. Still am frustrated about that. You have to order or something.
Rebecca [then the director of Kids on the Hill] came [to Babatunde’s high school] and she was saying that if you’re looking forward to improving your neighborhood, tutoring, and stuff like that—she was talking about homework, which was kind of irrelevant at the time—but yeah, just like improving your neighborhood, art and stuff. And I was like, “Where are you located?” And then she said my neighborhood. I was like, “Oh my God! What’s wrong?” Even though they have been right here for the longest time around the corner from my house. Which is the exact problem that I’m saying—how is it that I’ve lived here twenty years, two doors down, I didn’t know what this building was?
And I always wanted this organization [Kids on the Hill/New Lens] to be more well known in this neighborhood. I found it frustrating that some residents just didn’t have much interest. They were like, “What do you do?” It was almost—it was kind of confrontational. Like, “You dare to improve your neighborhood?” Like at least some of the adults I’ve met here. Even now– I’m not going to say any names—but, so for example, we were trying to build a project—we were talking about the Farm. We were talking about building an art project near the farm. And people were like, “You know, we don’t like the art that you young people do.”
New Lens youth artists paint sign board on Whitelock St. (2011)
I say that as an example. I don’t say that as the only example. I’ve talked with other neighbors who’ve lived around here on my block. They’re like “You do film, that’s cool but how are you helping your neighborhood? What you should be doing is getting other young people from selling drugs.” As if that’s even our mission, necessarily. Yes, we want people to be as productive through legal means. But are we just going to snatch a young person and say, “Come in here!” You know, that’s not necessarily even realistic. I just thought that people were really far more confrontational than they could have been about young people trying to help other young people.
I think until they really get to know me they just think I’m a stereotypical young black man– whatever that means. Which may mean I’m in and out the justice system, or headed there very soon. And they don’t really give you much of a chance or even much meaning. I think that’s another reason why I like New Lens, too, because through film you can show that you have talents, that you can be productive. I think in a way we really just became kind of a stronghold, like people eventually have gotten to know us. It’s not everybody for sure, but I think some people just come to, just believe, that we’re going to be there for a while and that’s a positive influence on the neighborhood.
Whitelock in this city still has a bad reputation. That’s because people don’t visit Whitelock, like they just assume. But people in this neighborhood? I think they’re starting to change. Like my friend he was like, “You know I used to think Whitelock meant ‘no whites on Whitelock’.” But he’s like, “Nah, you know, I’m starting to realize it’s different.” He’s like, I appreciate—he was saying he was appreciating the diversity. Yeah, it changed even like this year. Working at the Farm, I realized just working with agriculture can make a difference. Just changing your diet can help make a difference. In this neighborhood, people aren’t as healthy as they could be.
I didn’t know what was going on over there [at the Farm]. It’s funny, I kind of just didn’t even notice. I walked by and didn’t see much. I remember the hoop house and I remember thinking “Oh, that’s a farm.” I don’t remember before the hoop house, actually. I was like, “Well that’s not going to last long.” It’s sad, you know. Nope, I just said, “Whitelock is going to be Whitelock.” I know that sounds terrible, but I don’t envision any neighborhood changing without ten years passing. I mean, really, it takes time.
I was always disappointed when they were saying like the [Farm] sales weren’t where it should be. I didn’t understand it. And then you had to overcome just people’s hesitancy or reluctance towards natural food. Oh like, “That food can’t taste good–it’s right off of Whitelock.” Like as if Whitelock had some different type of grass or something, I don’t know.
I did like it [working at the Farm]. I mean at the very least I feel like I’ve met some people in my neighborhood who I normally wouldn’t have met. And that was helpful. I felt more connected to my neighborhood. I work down the street. And that’s fun. Uh, I had a lot of jokes about slavery coming up, well from my friends. They were like doing the little Negro spirituals they used to sing. ‘Cause when I come around, that was pretty funny. But I also noticed that the people who could be interested or maybe may benefit most, didn’t have interest. So, low economic status people would just walk by like, “Alright, whatever.” And it was the middle class people that were “What are you doing? What exactly is being planted right here? And you’re going to tell me every single thing. Right now.”
I think that’s the hardest thing for people in low economic status to see themselves contributing and being significant. But I want to be that example. And that’s one of the reasons why I also like the Farm, too, ‘cause I was like, “I can show people you should participate.” I guess an image that’s not necessarily maybe gentrification. Like maybe, I mean it’s not really their fault. It’s just if you’ve been here 20 years and you’ve never seen these people before or if you’re just meeting these people, you’re like, “Well, first of all, why are they interested in your neighborhood?” I mean, I had that question, too. Because before I met Elisa and the other people at the Farm, I was like, “Why are they even interested in Whitelock?”
I mean my mother’s not a worrier. But I would say that her concern is, can she buy a house here? Is that viable? And not being a rich person. But I think being auspicious enough and positive, we can. I hope to. I think I have an optimistic future. And the fact that my mother is trying—I mean she’s worked in this neighborhood for such a long time I don’t think she’s just going to give up.
I think what’s valid– what’s the scary part of maybe gentrification is people who aren’t residents improving the neighborhood. You know, if someone’s like “We’re helping the Native Americans by moving them off this land” or “We’re helping them by giving them our vision” and no one wants that. That’s what I was talking about. Now when it’s residents creating their own vision together–new residents and old residents alike creating a vision– that’s obviously not gentrification.
But maybe, you know, that’s something residents here could do. Like talk about how after 10[pm] we need something. And it’d be my restaurant. And that’s something I’m for–as long as I come up with the cuisine. All types of fried…syke! I mean, it needs to look better around here. We need to have a sense of community, so that means knowing your neighbors. Even though I’ve lived here, I still don’t know all my neighbors. And with a sense of community comes just about everything else. I think it comes, building networks, that makes a community feel safe, it makes them feel productive. I mean, that’s natural. And it’s a shame, really, that I don’t even feel that here sometimes.
I was thinking to myself, “Man, if that [new Whitelock St. projects] had happened ten years ago that would have been really nice.” Then my childhood would have spent less time going all the way to the park and it would be just round the corner. And I noticed, actually, kids on my block coming out more. So I didn’t know if that was in relation to that. But I felt like there were more kids outside, just naturally, just hanging out. Because when I came up there was none of that. I used to think there was no kids on my block.
Photo credits: Howard Fink, Teddy Krolik, Babatunde Salaam.