“We saw that someone was cultivating the land on that empty lot, and that’s when the perception changed of what a lot could be.”
In 2009, Elisa Lane, 31, moved with her husband, Doron, from Philadelphia to a rental apartment on Eutaw Place. Elisa had previous professional experience in fields as diverse as construction and clowning, but had never tended to anything more extensive than a single community garden plot. She now volunteers an average of 20 hours a week as the farm manager at Whitelock Community Farm, a resident-led project that has converted a ¼ acre vacant lot into a dynamic place for healthy food and interaction. In its first full year of cultivation, the Farm sold over $4,000 (approximately 3,000 lbs.) of produce at its weekly market stand at the corner of Whitelock St. and Brookfield Ave.
Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Elisa Lane 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.
Elisa Lane harvesting the Farm’s first sweet potato crop (2011)
We moved here two and a half years ago, so what was that? That was like August 2009, I think. And we were really drawn to this neighborhood because of the beautiful architecture here– I mean, stunning houses. But when we were around checking out the rental houses, we didn’t really see that many people on the street. It was like in the middle of the week and everybody I guess was at work.
So we didn’t really get a sense of what the dynamic of the neighborhood was. We agreed to rent this place, still without knowing very much about the neighborhood, and not knowing much about Baltimore. And then moved in. And then realized this neighborhood was actually a little bit rougher than we had anticipated.
But then at the same time, we really like to talk to our neighbors and not just have anonymity, but actually get to know people that are around and that we see all the time. So we would shoot the shit and talk with people, especially our neighbor across the street. We talked to him for a lot and he was really friendly and would invite us to things, and then we realized that he was actually a drug dealer. He’s tried to get money out of us and stuff like that, so we have since cut that relationship off. But you know, people did try and be inviting to us.
I had very mixed feelings about this neighborhood when we first moved here. This neighborhood, in addition to the black-white thing, there’s also the lower class, middle class, and upper class. And I think we definitely fit into the middle class category, but our neighbors right around us are very much lower class. And I can definitely sense in some of the conversations we have, there’s definite harsh feelings.
In our [old] neighborhood—we moved around a lot in Philadelphia– our favorite neighborhood, the thing that made that neighborhood so amazing, was this park [Liberty Lands Park] that was right in the middle of the neighborhood that was created by the community. It was an entire city block and it had community gardens attached to it. But a lot of the park was open space so there was lots of grass space where people could throw around Frisbees or play kickball and there was a playground and a little picnic area, and all these things. Life happened around this park.
And it was kind of sad that there wasn’t something like that here, a place where you could go and meet your neighbors and shoot the shit as you’re walking your dog. So I definitely noticed a lack of that. I mean, it was nice that we have Druid Hill Park right up the street, but that feels more like people coming from far away to come to that park and you’re not seeing the same people all the time.
So we didn’t find a park like the one we had in our old neighborhood, but what we did find was two community gardens [Reservoir Hill Community Garden on Whitelock St. and Lennox St. Community Garden on Lennox St.]. And we definitely decided to try and join one of those. Because, number one, we love to garden and, number two, we know that that’s the way into a community. So we had a community garden in Philadelphia and loved it, that’s how we talked to people.
We just saw that someone [a longtime resident named Marvin] was cultivating the land [across the alley from the Reservoir Hill Community Garden], and I don’t think we ever even saw him actually working out there. But we saw that someone was cultivating the land on that empty lot, and that’s when the perception changed of what a lot could be. You see all these empty lots, nothing’s really happening to them. But this one guy just decides that his community garden plot is not enough land for him, so he decides to start gardening the other side of the street.
That was just like a big, “Yeah! Why not? We can totally do that.” And I guess that other people [at the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council Green Team meeting] were also having this idea, totally independent of me. Because when Doron started talking to Cathy [another community gardener and Farm founder] about it, we weren’t thinking Farm or anything. Doron and I were thinking about, “We want a park, like our old park, that’s what we want.”
And even with the first designs that we did of the space, we actually created a lot of things—just part of it was growing space, like the melon patch—but then we planned on putting a fire pit in one area. We made little stools out of concrete blocks, just trying to create more of a park-type feel, where gardening is happening around it, but just trying to make a park. And then somehow that just totally changed and turned into farm.
A lot of people, I think just because we didn’t do a good job with outreach, people didn’t know what it was that we were doing or who it was for. And so we still have a lot to do in that arena. But then once people hear about what it is that we’re doing, they think it’s a pretty positive thing.
And also, I wonder how much people believe us. I know that Marvin [the long-time resident and original guerrilla gardener] can’t believe that we’ve been doing all this stuff and not to make money for ourselves, like it’s not a business. He just is kind of shocked with that. It’s like, “No, no, really, this is a non-profit venture, where really it’s just to benefit the neighborhood.”
And I wonder if that’s weird for people. We’re very privileged to even be able to take on this kind of venture that’s not for profit, and really is to benefit the neighborhood. I feel that’s a really abstract idea for some people, and not because of their morality or anything like that, just because people are trying to survive. They’re working so hard to survive, the idea of not doing something specifically for your own gain is just not even considered maybe.
I mean, we all live in the neighborhood—the people that started it—live in the neighborhood, but we are one demographic—we’re educated, white, middle class. So while it is at some point coming from the community, at another point it’s not representing all parts. I definitely have mixed feelings about that. And I’ve had very frank conversations with some of the neighbors about it. Some conversations, with a very disturbed neighbor, who hopes that we fail and hopes that we just go away, like, this isn’t our neighborhood. And that’s disheartening, but I’ve also had conversations with other neighbors, and I’ll be very frank and say, “I feel like what we’re doing for this neighborhood is good.”
Farm’s weekly market stand at Whitelock St. and Brookfield Ave. (2011)
But I also know that this is the beginning—we are the beginning– of the gentrification process.” And I feel guilt for that. We’re trying to do something good, it feels like it’s good. But ultimately it’s going to have consequences that are not going to be great for some of the residents here. That people may be displaced and have to go other places because either their rent goes up or they can’t afford their property tax or whatever. It’s happening. I’ve already seen the changes happening in this neighborhood, in just the short amount of time that I’ve been here.
Vicky’s husband [an African-American neighbor in his 60’s], I’m forgetting his name. He walks his dog all the time. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him about the Farm and about race. He’s the one, that I was like, “I feel guilty, because I know that we’re changing this neighborhood.” And he was like, “That’s not your fault. These people, they had time to buy their houses. You could buy a house for a dollar at one point! They had a chance, they could have bought it but they didn’t take it. You need to bring more of your friends here!”
One of my favorite things is, oh god, what is her name? I think we call her Ms. Carol [a very longtime resident]. She’s on Whitelock, but down the street. She’s kind of missing some teeth. Carol Smith! So she bought sweet potatoes from us, and then just without us saying anything she just brought us some slices of her sweet potato pie that she made.
Just stuff like that, I love so much–the sharing of recipes and information about growing. It’s so funny again it goes back to, it’s not about filling this need of healthier food. But the things that are most heartwarming to me are this community connection that’s happening, which I definitely feel like the Farm is filling part of that void. It’s not filling the entire void, not everyone is coming to the Farm, but it’s happening more.
Doris [a relatively new resident], she was worried—she thought that the hoop house looked ugly, just all of these things, and wanted to see flowers, so now we’re starting to do our flower beds. But she’s really come around. She actually said to me, she was like, “I think of you guys as the cavalry. You came to town and you’re doing the work. I’m sorry that I fought you guys so hard.”
Sometimes I feel like I’m putting so much into this neighborhood that I do want to a buy a house here. But then there’s this other part of me that just, really, eventually, I just feel like it’s time for me to move to the country. And I’m not saying that’s going to happen really soon. We are, we’re saving our money, so that we can put a deposit on land. That’s years away, because it’s so expensive. I just feel like I’m supposed to move to the country. But I feel like I have serious ties to this neighborhood now, so it’s kind of sad for me to think about moving away from here.
I do hear people say that they have a lot that’s across the street from their house and they think about doing something with it, and I’m very encouraging about it. I always say, “If you want any help with that, just let me know and I’ll do whatever I can to make that work.” But I think a lot of people have these thoughts, but I think that it’s daunting to people because it is a lot of work.
Whenever I do things in other parts of the city and I talk about Whitelock Community Farm, and then I say, “Yeah, it’s in Reservoir Hill on Whitelock St,” people go “Whitelock?!?” That name resonates with people across the city, but not in a very a positive light, though. It’s like, “Whitelock St. is the place that you do not go to. It’s trouble, it’s drugs, it’s a bad place.” People—white and black—thought very poorly of Whitelock St.. And they still do. When I bring it up, they’re like, “You have a farm there? That’s just crazy!”
Photo credits: Howard Fink, Teddy Krolik, Elisa Lane, Eli Lopatin.