“We had to find some different common denominators to come together on, and to create a different kind of vision, a different kind of group.”
Russ Moss, 62, purchased his home on Park Ave. in 1984. A Georgia native, Russ came to Baltimore for a job as a television videographer for CBS, where his first assignment was taping Oprah Winfrey. Within a year of arriving in Reservoir Hill, Russ was elected president of the community association that would become Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. Over the past 27 years, rain or shine, neighbors entering the community on Park Ave. have grown accustomed to seeing Russ digging, raking, watering, and planting in the median area in front of his house.
Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Russ Moss 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.
Russ performs at Reservoir Hill’s National Night Out (2010)
I moved to Maryland in October of ‘77 and I lived in Baltimore County–Randallstown to be exact– the first couple of years. Then I moved to Annapolis, which I loved, but I didn’t love the commute. So in 1984, when the interest rate came out of the teens, I figured “OK, it’s time to start looking for a house.” And I looked at other parts of the city, but I really wanted to be close to my work place at the time—TV Hill.
So, after I looked all things considered, I said, “OK. Reservoir Hill probably has the best potential, but we got to clean it up. My goodness.” It’s just like the princess or the prince, that you know underneath that film and funk, that hadn’t been taken care of in a generation or two, there’s a gem. There’s a beautiful royalty underneath that crud.
I looked at the beautiful architecture, beautiful sound building—needed a lot of work, well located. Walking distance to the Olmstead brother 700+ acre park, done by the same guys that laid out Central Park in New York and many other noted parks in the country. Walking distance to one of the best colleges for art in the world. Walking distance to the light rail, of course that came a bit later. Access to 83, a major expressway. Easy access to 95. So when you start to look at all of those amenities—walking distance to the major concert hall, to the Lyric Theater.
I remember the first day, well I had actually bought the place—I should say, closed on the property in March of 1984. So July of ‘84, I was actually moving into my portion of this house, because there were two apartments that were still rented. So I figured “Well, it makes sense to drive down the alley to bring in some kitchen type things.” Well, the alley was so cluttered with garbage—this is 1984, I had to put my vehicle in reverse and back up to Newington because I could not get all the way through to Reservoir St. That’s how bad it was. And I have some photographs I can show you later.
And I remember seeing two guys that were sitting playing checkers or chess—and I usually don’t curse, but I just said, “How in the hell can you sit on your ass with all this god damn trash around you?” And the guys looked at me—because they didn’t know me anymore than I knew them. But anyway, so that was kind of the welcoming committee, you know, the welcoming scene to my moving in. And I ended up bringing in the kitchen things through the front door because I could at least park in the front because it was not cluttered with garbage.
So this had been going on for 40-plus years. And people were very set in their ways and you had a city that was doing something but had not really dealt with tackling this problem because it was so prevalent. I would talk to people, “Don’t you see the garbage. Goodness, don’t the people who work for the city see it?” But I think sometimes people get so accustomed to things that they are numb to it. It’s kind of like a person that hasn’t had a bath in 6 weeks, everyone else will walk into the room and smell it but they go, “I don’t smell nothing.” So that was kind of going on with Reservoir Hill.
Collectively, the community association started to just yell out, “We smell something! We can change this! We need to change this!” Of course, we knew that we couldn’t change it all in one day, but we could certainly start with the cleaning up. And we eventually start to do some landscaping, and taking the tree wells that were just littered with garbage and broken glass—“Well, let’s turn those into mini gardens.” And so the park lane out on Park, around the fountain, was just garbage and broken stuff, so begin to plant things. “OK. Let’s do a little at a time.”
The retail district, Whitelock St., had been more of a hemorrhoid, quite frankly, than it had been an asset to the community. Because it was kind of the community’s cancer. If you mentioned Whitelock St., even if the person didn’t know, “Oh, that’s where they have all the fights and the shootings and the cuttings and the drugs.” Plus, the merchants were making money off of it as it was, so it was no incentive for them to change.
900 block of Whitelock St. before demolition (1994)
So those of us who wanted a change knew that, “OK. It would be a little disruptive, but nothing is better than anything.” So we figured, we would rather have nothing. Let it stay fallow. Let it just stay dormant until we can rebuild the residential base strong enough so that when we do bring in some retail it will be something of value, it will be something that will be an asset.
In the meantime, I think that the Whitelock St. Farm, and some of the wonderful things that are going on there, have proven the point—that sometimes it’s best to leave things be until other things come to fruition. Then, the appropriate thing can happen in time and it can be measured and it can be done with rhythm, and not just strictly driven by someone who’s looking for a quick dollar. I’ve got nothing against money, but I do think that if we’re going to have value in life we really must look a bit more long term than flipping something over or the next quick dollar. That’s in no one’s interest except a greedy capitalist, and not even in a greedy capitalist’s if you want to be around for the long haul.
So you just have to say, “OK. This is what I can get done today. And this is what we can get done next month.” You know, you measure it. It’s like if you’re having Thanksgiving turkey, you don’t eat the whole damn thing in one bite. You carve it out, and then a forkful at a time, a bite at a time. And so we’ve been biting out of this chore—at least I’ve been at the table biting and many people were biting on it long before I got here—for a quarter of a century. So we’ve made some progress on the turkey.
I don’t say patience, but, well, I guess patience, because you have to learn that. Because I know many people who just got frustrated and they left. But I also know that wherever you live, whatever environment is there, the people who live there, are for the most part [the ones who] create and maintain that environment. It doesn’t exist, it doesn’t have a zip code where things are nice. Things are nice where the vision, and those who continually work toward that vision, make it so.
For instance, when I first moved to Maryland, I lived in Randallstown for the first two years. I did not know Baltimore City and I figured, “OK. I’ll live in the county until I get to know where it is wise to invest in.” But at that time, I mention Randallstown, very nice, very manicured. And I know many of the people who moved from within a block of here, moved to Randallstown, to get away from this. And this followed them. Yes.
A lot of the places that I saw in Randallstown in the 80’s—I used to run every day, used to jog all the way through, so I knew it intimately—and I see much of the same stuff that we wrestled with 25 years ago have moved to those areas. And so that confirms that the word “nicer,” the word “a pleasant place to live” is not—I mean you will find it in some zip codes—but it is not driven by the zip code. It is driven by those who occupy that space, their vision, their standards.
I dare say I’ve probably been in 2/3 of the homes in this area. I don’t mean just go by, I’ve been in them, and talked to the people, met them or had dinner with them. And I’m talking, the black ones, the white ones, Asians. And Reservoir Hill– most places talk about being a melting pot, I mean, it’s not anybody’s problem– but it has come closer to that illusion that America talks about than any place– certainly in this city– that I know of.
And another thing, too, I think from the fact that we did not have that community core, that community center, or the little town village center, where people could have their espresso. We didn’t have the Starbucks, didn’t even have the drug market—because they tore that down.
Consequently, we had to create another common denominator, and that common denominator became the garden tour, it became the community meetings, it became the block club activities, it became the neighborhood festivals or the flea markets or the holly tour or the community gardens. So we had to find some different common denominators to come together on, and to create a different kind of vision, a different kind of group. And I think that what that does—like so many communities, if you have a certain store goes out of business, you go, “waahhhh,” the Starbucks gone, “waaaah,” the tavern burned down, “waaah.”
Since we had gotten out of the habit of those things, then you have to build your community common denominator around something perhaps a bit more intangible but much more lasting. And I think that sometimes the strongest things are the ones that aren’t seen. In that sense, we have been held together– and we are still focused and held together–by a vision, And I think the fact that that vision didn’t come overnight and we haven’t been able to create that vision overnight, when we do create it, I think it’s going to be the right one, because we will certainly have plenty of time to marinate it in thought and vision, and that’s a good thing.
But one of the downsides from that is that many of us were seeing it as community building, but of course some other people started seeing it as wealth building. So that was the lesson that I learned– that everyone comes to the table with a different perspective. You know, some people come to dine, and some come to stuff [themselves]. And it’s always good, if there’s any note of caution, that as a neighborhood is seeking to regenerate itself, to improve itself, that it be aware that everyone who comes into the mix is not going to have the best interest, or the long term best interests, of that community. That they’re going to be focusing more on their individual wealth– and not that having wealth is bad– but I do think that there needs to be a balanced approach to it.And if there was anything we could rewind, and I’m not even sure what one could put in place in a capitalist system to safe guard that.
But I do think that there ought to perhaps be some requirement that a person, maybe if depending on the loan arrangement, that you perhaps live there for a while, there would be some vested interests. Because one thing that happened with the flipping, then everyone’s taxes started to go up. That becomes destabilizing. Sometimes you look at the assessment office and they’re not going to stop it because that’s more money for them, but the long-term rate is that there are people that will move because this doesn’t make sense anymore.
One of the big disappointments was this thing that the City called “bundling.” If you have some available funds to invest in a community, I think it would be wise to– instead of taking a block of houses and hand them over to “Mr. Developer,” who will come in and gut out the house and throw away all of the things that are historical that are worth keeping– that give the place the character anyway. They come in, gut the place, basically turn it into a Ryland’s home in a 1880’s shell. And do it cheaply—you know, cement over or carpet over the good floors, or if they don’t actually tear ‘em out. And they move on to the next one. And when you look at the areas that got caught up in the financial crisis, those are the ones.
I actually could have afforded to live most places in the city, and I probably would have been less welcome in some than others. But I never really had a problem, you know, being able to adapt, and I dare say I could have been a good neighbor to any of those places. But part of me, for those reasons that I already mentioned, I saw this as a good opportunity—one, to have a potentially very pleasant home, but it was an opportunity to create a pleasant community. And I’m so glad that I was able to, along with many others, to be a part of some of that positive change that have come about.
True, I could have moved to a place where I could have pretty much had an easy street and a cushy life. But, number one, the journey wouldn’t have been nearly as rich, but most important, I must say that this has been “Life 101 and Life 202 and Life 303.” And I have all of the lessons many times that we learn from the great literature, I’ve had the first-hand experience from the cast of characters and the wonderful neighbors and some not so wonderful neighbors that I’ve experienced here in Reservoir Hill. There is nothing that can define life better than the experience of interacting with people, interacting with the situations that come along with that. And to that extent, I wouldn’t take anything for the journey. It’s been a growth.
Photo credits: Howard Fink, Teddy Krolik, Russ Moss.