“This neighborhood is a place where you can make the change within your self, in your neighborhood, by rolling up your sleeves.”
Randy Howell, 51, lives on Reservoir St. in Reservoir Hill, Baltimore. He purchased his home in 2000, but, as he’ll tell you, he was not a newcomer to the neighborhood. Randy is the unofficial neighborhood handyman, always showing up with some extra tools or just a truck bed to haul materials. Most recently, Randy has joined other residents who have been teaching themselves to run a Bobcat excavator as part of a Reservoir Hill Improvement Council Green Team initiative to convert the vacant block across from Whitelock Community Farm into a community park.
Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Randy Howell 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.
Randy Howell receives his prize at Whitelock Community Farm’s Greens Cook-Off (10/16/11)
I came up in the ‘80’s. I wasn’t born here, I came up here. It was just Whitelock. If you were from Whitelock, you were cool. And I just wanted to be cool. The police had already chased me from another neighborhood, so I had to find a new neighborhood to do what I had to do.
It was a lot of negativity in the ‘80’s up on Whitelock St. I mean, Reservoir Hill has always been good. It’s always been a beautiful neighborhood, but just that one block at Whitelock and Brookfield was very chaotic, and I was part of that confusion then. It was a lot of drug dealers, a lot of crime. You had to do what you had to do to survive. And I was just attracted to that negative lifestyle and I just wanted to be a part of it. I thought that’s what I had to do. You know, it was fast money, fast girls, fast cars, and I loved it.
I guess back there, this being popular– you know, make a name for yourself—so, I was from Whitelock. It was cool to go into the club and when they ask “What neighborhood are you from?”– “I’m from Whitelock.” One of the things I liked about Whitelock was the amount of large families in the neighborhood. We all stuck together no matter what, it was a lot of fun. Amidst all the bull crap we still had a lot of good times up here. We always had unity and strength. There were not many killings back then. Everybody just knew everybody.
Then you start seeing people with the HIV and Hepatitis C, the wreckage of our past. When you start the lifestyle, you don’t see the darkness of the side effects. You only see the glamour and the glimmer, the bright lights, the slick old cars and the girls. One of the side effects is now I’m caught up in the disease of addiction, hanging out on Whitelock and Brookfield as a touter.
Yeah, I went to jail. Let me back it up. I went to jail in ‘84 and was sentenced for a year. Then I came back just to the same old neighborhood, nothing changed. I started doing the same old thing. My addiction started taking off then. That’s when I started using drugs heavy. That’s when I started using drugs intravenous, start shooting up. And I’m out of control now.
I thought I was a person who had it going on at one time, but what goes around come around. And now, it’s like impending doom. And I was caught up in the disease of addiction and it seemed like there’s no way out for me. So now, I’m like the little ‘yo hanging on the corner. When people ride past saying, “Look at him, look at him, stuck on Whitelock.” But I can’t get out. Just like you see people stuck on North and Linden. Can’t go nowhere. They are just caught up. And now, Whitelock and Brookfield. It’s like, “No life.” Now I got to feed my addiction and my life is a 4-block radius. I just thought I was going to die up on Whitelock. I thought, “I’m going to die with my boots on.”
View of Whitelock St. from Brookfield Ave. (1984)
Things started to get better in the late ‘80’s. I think that’s when I started this vision, that I didn’t hang no more and that’s when I started getting my stuff together. But by that time, they boarded up Whitelock, just tore it down. It displaced a lot of families, moved a lot of people out. There was no reason to come back up here, not for me. By that time I got myself together, got a good job, not a good job, but a legitimate job, and I started going to 12-step programs. The thing is, even when I was out there on them corners, there was a lot things that I knew…I already had a conscience. What I was doing I knew was wrong. But I got caught up. And I didn’t plan to be out there like that. Once you make a negative decision in life you just off to the next one. You don’t have any control. Once I got myself together, I started a family.
Around 2000, I wanted to buy a house, so I just started looking. I went to Butcher’s Hill, went to Charles Village, I went everywhere. And my realtor said, “It’s a house up on Reservoir St. You want to look at it?”– “Man, no, I don’t want to look at a house up there. Not up in that neighborhood.” Reluctantly, I went into the house and fell in love with it, as is. I saw a lot of character in the house that I liked. And I said, “I can bring this old house back to life again.” I told my realtor that I was looking for a house—fixer upper, fireplace, tall ceiling, and hard wood floors. Went down to Reservoir St., and the house had everything I wanted. But this house needed a lot of work, and the price was right.
It was more like the phoenix bird rising from its own ashes. Here was a neighborhood that was down and out, and now, all of a sudden, that God would bring me back in the neighborhood, that I can make changes. That I can build again, that I can make my amends back to the community. To help people, to raise people from the dead. Now, I’m clean and sober, 16 years clean. Even when all the confusion was going up on Whitelock, I remember people were buying homes up there. I think they had like the dollar house, I’m not too sure, but someone told me it was booming. So it had been raising, and here they come, we try to destroy it. Then it would be a comeback. Like every 5 years you could start seeing a turn for the better.
We definitely not so easy up in here. So you have all types of lifestyles, different types of people, different nationalities. You just got people who still don’t want to– a lot of people here just don’t want to change. They got that old lifestyle. But at the same time, we’re still moving. The people in the neighborhood are pulling together, trying to make changes to try to build on this neighborhood. It was alive, but I guess that’s what makes this neighborhood so great. That we didn’t have a lot of outside help, I mean, outside of the building scope. It’s like a grass roots organization that is doing it on its own. We were like standing alone for ourselves.
You know, if you want to be responsible for your own neighborhood, you need to roll up your own sleeves and get involved, if you want to make changes in the neighborhood. Sometimes people just want handouts, want other people [to do their work for them]. But this neighborhood is a place where you can make the change within your self, in your neighborhood, by rolling up your sleeves. It’s so many things out there going on that you can get involved with. But I can tell you one thing, this new generation, the last couple of years that’s been coming through here, I like them. You know, something real simple– the Farm. It’s the people that are coming through now, I like their spirit. You know, they’re not “bougie,” they don’t want to throw out the poor people in the neighborhood. They want to come up here and work along with the people–we can build a healthy neighborhood for everyone.
Some people ask me, “Man, what’s going on?” But they remember me from back in the day. “We don’t trust them.” I said, “What do you mean you don’t trust them? Good people.” This is the best group of people I’ve worked with. And everybody live here. If you want to be a part of this neighborhood, you got the same opportunity to buy a piece of property in this neighborhood and work hard and fix it up. No one ever gave me anything. I didn’t ask for this. Trust me, when I moved in, I didn’t know all this was going on in this neighborhood. But I’m glad that I chose this neighborhood, to be a part of this neighborhood.
A lot of people in this neighborhood have low self esteem, low self worth. But I guess they never seen anything. I wish I could take all the kids out of the neighborhood to see how other people live. They’re just caught up in this Baltimore thing. They don’t know what niceness is. Man, this neighborhood is a beautiful neighborhood. It’s like a crown jewel, diamond in the rough, and they don’t know they’re sitting on a gold mine. One of the best neighborhoods, close to the park, close to 83, right on the main strip of North Ave. You can be anywhere in the city in 5 minutes. I can sell this neighborhood just on its location.
You know what, to be honest with you, it’s [the neighborhood] already there. I think it’s here. From what we came from, it’s here. This is it. I mean, I know we got a little niche to overcome with Linden and North Avenue, with the liquor store, with the Laundromat, the people hanging on the corner. But the people are showing up, just like in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. People are coming. They’re coming to push you out or you’re going to be a part of it. It ain’t going to be like, they’re going to push you out. They’re going to come and join with you. It’s going to be a big melting pot up here soon. You’re going to start seeing a lot of the college students from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] that’s moving in the neighborhood, they’re renting the properties in the neighborhood, they’re showing up. So, it’s a lot of good spirit up here.
Photo credits: Howard Fink, Randy Howell, Teddy Krolik, Russ Moss.