“Everything that happens here is because residents have figured out how to make it happen, and that is a more stable structure even though it’s slower.”
Rebecca Yenawine, 39, first came to Reservoir Hill in 1991 as a student at nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). In 1995, she founded “Kids on the Hill,” an arts-based after-school program that she operated under Reservoir Hill Improvement Council’s umbrella before gaining official 501(c) 3 status. In 2009, the program evolved into “New Lens,” a youth-driven social justice organization working to assist youth in making art and media about often-underrepresented perspectives. A recipient of a 1999 Community Fellowship Award from the Open Society Institute, Rebecca also works as an adjunct faculty member at MICA. She lives on Madison Ave. with her husband.
Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Rebecca Yenawine 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.
Rebecca and “Kids on the Hill” youth at John Eager Howard mural project (2006)
I felt like this neighborhood really showed a lot of interesting Baltimore history. It was a remnant of what Baltimore had been and what Baltimore has become, in ways that I still find really stimulating. Unlike some people who move just because the houses are pretty, I moved because I care about race and wanted to be challenged as a white person to think more deeply about those issues, to make art about those issues.
I had a little seed that was sort of burning in me after I dropped out of art school, which was really that I felt that art had a role in communities. And that art had a role in community development. I don’t know that I would have articulated it that way, but that’s how I saw it. In retrospect, I think that’s what it was– I saw that art was a resource.
So in the community at this time, the very concrete story that sort of drove me was seeing some kids spray paint, kids that I knew, spray painting, tagging their names around the community. And that moment, I thought, “Yes, I totally get it. I get that you want to say who you are. I get that you want to make your mark. Let’s figure out how to do this in a way that is positive, that helps the community see who you are, and all your assets. Rather than thinking of you as a nuisance, and create a further division between the lower income residents and the middle class residents.” That was the impetus for the first time I figured out how to use art as a community development strategy.
When I first moved into the community, most of the stores [on Whitelock St.] were already boarded up. So I’ve never had the experience of there being a thriving business, commercial strip in the neighborhood. I really just experienced it as a sad eyesore that people were just so discouraged by. I think that people assumed that something better would happen in that space. And I think anybody interested in developing that space took a look around and thought, “Well, there’s a reason why this strip became what it became,” and part of it is because the neighborhood can’t support businesses. There’s not enough wealth, there’s not enough density to really support businesses.
So I think folks have been really sad about that reality and I think it’s only been recently that people have gotten, “Oh, it’s just not going to happen.” I think we’ve had developer after developer come in, and brainstorming session after brain storming session, to talk about, “What do you want from Whitelock?” And everyone always says the same things—“community space to gather, a coffee shop, some nice businesses”—whatever that means…like, things that are not liquor stores.
I think there’s a lot of creativity that can bloom out of necessity. And I think it’s sort of natural for a community to want to gather and connect. I think that lots of communities get that instinct sort of beaten out of them by systematic removal of resources but I think that’s probably our natural state. The Farm on Whitelock, the artwork that we’ve put on Whitelock, the trees that have been planted on Whitelock, the boxing matches that happen on Whitelock, the little health van that was there for a while on Whitelock, all those things. The playground, the renovation of the playground, which is just off of Whitelock.
I think all of those things speak to that—when there is a vacant space, all people want to fill that space with something. What they want to fill it with is interesting to me. I don’t know that every community figures out how to have the resources to make their vacant spaces communal spaces, and I think that it’s great that some factions of the community have come together to figure that out.
When we started “Kids on the Hill,” I remember lots of people saying “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” And I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was committed, so it didn’t matter if I knew what I was doing or not. We were in a little storefront on Madison Avenue and we were not zoned to be an after school program in that space, but, you know, it was the kind of thing that if no one calls on you, you’re fine. But people called on us, and wanted to shut us down.
We were small, it was chaotic. We were serving really challenging young people. We serve some challenging young people now, but our expectations are a lot higher. And we were up against a lot– a lot of our more middle class neighbors did not want to see young people on the block gathering in that way.
I still don’t think the middle class community cares much for us, honestly. Nobody has tried to shut us down, which is great. We’re working with older kids, so they’re not as noisy or volatile. But I think when we’ve had community conversations about, “Should there be a liquor store in the community?,” our kids came to a little discussion session where the middle class people were like, “Shut it down! Shut it down!” And our kids were the only representatives of lower-income residents at the table, and they’re like, “That’s where we buy chips, that’s where we buy drinks. That’s where we shop.”
I’m not sure how I feel about advocating for a liquor store staying open, but I do feel committed that those conversations should be community decisions and not just in the hands of a small portion of the population of the community. And that it’s important for those groups to talk. And what if the liquor store were selling fancy, fancy wine? You know the middle class neighbors would be there.
All those conversations are important. I think it’s absolutely important that no matter what class you come from to understand: that young people have important things to say, that they have a role in social change movements, that if they don’t include them in the processes of changing and transforming the community, the viability of your solutions will be limited. I firmly believe that.
Enjoying the community-built German Park playground (2011)
Reservoir Hill is just such a crazy place. Sometimes when you have those meetings [proposing an art project that you want to do] and it’s like “Golly!”– how much resistance there is to change. Or that legacy of people who want this historic feeling, and at the same time don’t acknowledge there are people that are barely surviving here and you protecting your property without considering the perspective of another person that’s thinking about how they’re going to feed themselves. You can’t live here and be in that bubble.
I think there is opportunity. If you want to make something here, you can have impact. The full transformation—which in my mind is changing the cycle of poverty—that’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think the first year of watching the Farm, it’s like, “OK, we’ll see where this goes.” There’s lots of people that have tried things and it’s not sustainable. It takes a lot of work. I’ve been going through cycles of burnout for the last 15 years. It’s hard to keep going.
I would love to see local infrastructure. I would love to see a return to a local economic model that’s about “How do we take care of ourselves? How do we create businesses and opportunities that help people from the ground up?” We’re watching young people in our organization who are products of inter-generational cycles of poverty.
And their schools aren’t preparing them to make different choices, there aren’t jobs that are accessible to them without help. They don’t have the connections to get really cool jobs that might be different than a manual labor job. But there aren’t enough manual jobs for them anymore. So part of what we do is to think about “How do you take a young person—not very well educated but brilliant—and really help young people to create their own?”
I think the slow, steady renovation of houses into single-family dwellings is going to slowly increase the amount of middle class neighbors. On my one small block, shortly after I moved in, there were 4 vacant buildings that were all boarded up right next to me. They all are single family dwellings with middle class people in them with young children. I think the more that balance is tipped the easier it is to sustain innovation. Given the size of our buildings, I don’t know if there will ever be enough density to have a dynamic commercial strip.
My guess is that someday down the road there will be something that provides a community space so that RHIC isn’t in a basement. So that we’re not in a basement. So that the resources that have figured out how to stay have the support they deserve. Right now I think we’re still just figuring out who has ideas and how do we help those ideas happen.
We don’t yet have enough infrastructure to organize for something larger, but I think we’re on the path. I see this as a neighborhood that is constructed from authentic investment and not the City or a developer coming in and thinking, “Ah! We can make money from this!” Everything that happens here is because residents have figured out how to make it happen, and that is a more stable structure even though it’s slower. I’m always hopeful about the future.
Photo credits: Howard Fink, Teddy Krolik, Russ Moss, Rebecca Yenawine.