Teddy and his neighbor, Randy Howell, at the Ravens’ 2011 home opener (9/11/11)
You have the unique job of being a hybrid community organizer and neighborhood planner in Reservoir Hill, Baltimore. What is your job like?
I think I have the best job in the world. Reservoir Hill has so much going for it: beautiful, historic houses; close proximity to downtown; and, a rich, diverse cultural history that continues through today. At the same time, there are few natural gathering spaces, no businesses bigger than a corner store, and no places where all residents can casually run into each other.
My job at Reservoir Hill Improvement Council combines urban planning with community organizing to try to bridge these social gaps—in both their physical and less tangible forms—to create a healthier social, political, and physical environment for residents. Some projects are typical urban “greening” initiatives: for example, planting trees, cleaning up dumping sites, promoting energy conservation, and bringing hands-on environmental education to students, teachers, and parents at John Eager Howard Elementary School. Others have broader goals: we’re currently organizing neighbors to imagine, design, and execute a plan to transform an entire vacant block (Whitelock St., the former commercial hub of the neighborhood) into an active place where neighbors of all ages can work and play together at a community-built park, playground, and urban farm.
The most important part of my job is really just walking around and sitting on stoops with folks. I am not the reason any of these projects gets done; the residents are the ones who come up with the ideas, and more importantly, they are the ones who actually make everything happen. My biggest contribution is bringing residents together so that they can see there are other people, both in the neighborhood and beyond, who have the knowledge, resources, and perseverance to help them achieve their goals.
How is media and storytelling important to your work?
The work that we are doing in Reservoir Hill has a special significance because of the neighborhood’s history. The fact that this neighborhood was and continues to be prestigious, violent, beautiful, and gritty means that every project brings together people and places who are often in dramatic contrast. I think one of the things that we need to improve is how we communicate those narratives, especially on the street-level. You can walk through Reservoir Hill today and see projects that are completed, in progress, or just beginning, but still have no idea of who is doing the work, why they are doing it, what came before, and what will be coming.
To appreciate and understand new and old projects alike, someone coming upon the project for the first time or the 100th time needs to know why this is something worth protecting and worth supporting. We need to create projects that express themselves so clearly that they make people walking down the street want to join and interact with what they see so that they, too, can become a part of the broader story. I created rhicgreen.org in summer 2011 to share all the exciting things that people are doing around the neighborhood because frequently residents have little idea what is going on beyond their immediate block. I also wanted a place to put up all the cell phone pictures I take every week. A website, though, has limited visibility for many residents in Reservoir Hill, which only reinforces the importance of designing projects that speak for themselves.
Do any particular blogs or publications inspire your in your work?
One of the best parts of my job is that I have the freedom to explore any idea, whether it’s happening in Baltimore, Boston, or Bangladesh, that might improve life in Reservoir Hill. I’m most drawn to the projects that rely more on human capital and ingenuity than actual monetary investment, so I often find myself reading articles on Public Workshop, myurbanist, and Project for Public Spaces about new ways for people– especially youth– to participate in the design and analysis of their local environments. For more general inspiration on how to write and think about life (or just baseball), I recommend Joe Posnanski, Flip Flop Fly Ball, and Cardboard Gods.