2018 Week 6: Neighborhood
Every day on my way to and from work, I pass by vacant buildings. As I drive down North Fulton avenue, through Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, there seem to be two to three on every block. This is not an exaggeration.
Black holes of windows, like eyeball-less sockets, gape into the street. Their emptiness is more jarring for the fact that it is a pastel-colored street, pastel-dusted houses. Creams, light yellows, orange-pinks of bricks and reds that even if darker, are somehow softer. They, the black sockets, are on the third and second floor, always the third and second floors of buildings, houses vacant through three stories, and I wonder how many more generations. Others are boarded up, wooden slabs replace doors and windows. No light, in or out. Sometimes I can see broken panes of glass and collapsing roofs.
Perhaps it is not quite every block. Fine-let us say it is every other. When it gets to this point anyway, how much deterioration and disinvestment can a community take?
To live, every day, to pass by, empty houses. Boarded up once-corner-stores. Not knowing, really, what is behind the gray wood, peeking here and there peeling paint and pieces of ceilings hanging down, trees growing in the spaces. What must it do to your psyche?
Each Wednesday and Thursday when we walk the five blocks to the public pool at the park, we pass by vacants. There have never been any questions asked. What does this say to a child, to have this situation normalized?
It is, de facto if no longer de jure, a way of teaching them to settle for less. -What do you mean empty buildings are a problem? You live in a house, don’t you? In fact, really what we should be is thankful-‘thankful’ here always used as an excuse, as a response to the question “But why not this instead?”, as a tactic of silencing a conversation which dares to imagine something different.- And it is a way of saying, Your community is not a priority. You are not a priority.
The same dynamics which underlie the affordable housing and vacants crisis underlie the poor quality of school buildings, the perpetual underfunding of education, the lack of recreational activities and spaces. Issues inseparable from race and class, which have, in fact, at there very foundational, race and class. Historically, and contemporaneously. Because do you think, do you think that a white wealthy neighborhood would ever allow broken empty buildings to dot their streets like so many missing teeth?
I think of my kids. I know little of the details of their home lives, but enough to be aware that some of them, at least, likely deal with overcrowding. If not overcrowding, then some other unideal condition. No AC. Being shuffled from one parent’s or grandparent’s or aunt or uncle’s house to another. Instability at the very core. Having heard the statistics around housing insecurity in Baltimore, it is more than likely that some, if not many, of my kids fall into some kind of housing insecure category. And I think how depersonalizing it is, to be a number. How depersonalizing, when here I know that Franklin moves from his mother’s house to his stepfather’s house, that Christine sleeps in a home of ten or twelve other people, that he has a talent for drawing and she wants to be a professional basketball player, and how impossible it is when you know someone as a person to not see that all our crises, housing, income, education, are ethical crises, the crisis of valuing people and relationships, of knowing what community is.
In the last week, I’ve seen and experienced the extents to which organizers, activists, and everyday residents will go to to make changes in their community. United Workers has worked to collect more than 14,000 signatures for the ballot initiative to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but we don’t know how many of those are signatures from registered voters. So, we’re working to amass a large buffer of 8,000 signatures or more to ensure that we have at least 10,000 signatures from registered Baltimore City voters. This means that we have less than a month to collect 4,000 signatures.
Collecting 4,000 petition signatures in the middle of July in Baltimore, however, is not a fun task. Petitioning on its own is often a thankless task–people don’t want you to bother them with your pesky solicitations, they don’t want to sign a petition, they don’t like affordable housing. Store managers kick you off their property, police and private security harass you on the sidewalk, and passersby sometimes say pretty unsavory things. But this month, the weather has fluctuated between hellish heat and humidity and torrential rain. We’ve even had both at the same time! Confronting the tribulations of petitioning while soaking wet–either with rain or your own sweat–is particularly challenging.
Last week, though, I found myself standing outside of Northeast Market in Middle East in the intensifying mid-morning mugginess. Sam, another CIIP intern and an enthusiastic member of a generously donated team of canvassers, joined me at the Market. We spent two hours in front of the market, trying to convince passersby to talk to us. The Market had closed for a health inspection, and people were irked. Traffic on this usually-packed street was low. But Sam and I were in high spirits! We collected as many signatures as we could in the heat, chatted about our other petitioning experiences that summer, and cheerfully interrupting our conversation to engage people trying to get into the Market.
United Workers wanted to use Artscape weekend to push the Fund the Trust Initiative over the edge. We planned to have as many petitioners as possible wandering around Artscape on Saturday, talking to every Baltimore City voter. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s weather decided to make its monthly swing from hellish to torrential on Saturday morning. The few of us who showed up spent hours on Saturday afternoon standing in the rain or sheltering in near-empty buildings talking to the few people around us. My clothes were soaked through, and the cardboard houses that we’d made to attract attention disintegrated.
In spite of the weather, volunteers, interns, members, and staff of United Workers spent their time working towards a future where everyone has a home, and where our city government is responsive and democratic. These folks aren’t just fair-weather activists. I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve worked with who put their bodies on the line for justice and human rights.
I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of rain on my window. My first thought, actually, was that the sound was quite calming. My second thought, though, was “ohnoohnoohno.”
I showered, grabbed my umbrella, and walked the two blocks to Starbucks to caffeinate me for the day ahead. From there, I walked, umbrella protecting me from the elements, to the 29th Street Community Center.
I was the first to arrive by about forty-five minutes, and I reveled in that. As I called the cafe who’d promised to donate breakfast to confirm pickup details, I prayed that the rain would stop. Instead, it only grew stronger.
As I crossed out the “July 21st” on our flyers and printed the word TODAY in all caps in its place and made dozens of copies, I begged in every way I knew how for the downpour to end.
As I checked my email and saw that the YMCA had finally gotten back to me about being present at the event, a mere ten hours before, I told myself that it wasn’t raining *that* hard.
As our volunteers showed up and started packaging school supply kits for the kids who’d show up, I began to panic. What if no kids showed up?
When we fired up the grill but had to confine grilling to a space immediately outside the center so the grill, the griller, and the food would be protected by the overhanging roof of the building, I began to rationalize.
When community partners started arriving, their hair wet and shoes squeaky, their tables covered in free condoms and vials of Nalaxone, I began to feel a bit more optimistic.
And when I saw families in the Community Room of the center, becoming trained in Nalaxone, eating burgers grilled by my boss, and playing catch with toys given to them by Chase Brenton, I knew we’d planned a successful event.
And when it was time to clean up, I almost cried. As I took the cardboard and aluminum we’d used to the recycling bin outside, my hair got soaked and my shoes got drenched. I thought about all the people who’d done that to themselves for our event. We made some small difference and that’s all we can each hope to do.
I have been blessed to be placed with an organization that is in the process of moving offices. It sounds a little silly when I say it like that, but it’s an idea that I have really embraced. I will admit, I was pretty intimidated when I was first assigned the task of sorting and packing up a significant portion of the LHRC, especially since I would be digging deep into closets and cabinets, where things have existed longer undisturbed than my time here at the LHRC. However, there’s nothing quite like a big move to get you intimately familiar with all the different resources and materials that the LHRC has to offer. After all, how better to get to know a place than to break it down and build it back up?
I was initially stressed by all that we had to do, but my coworker has been an organizational powerhouse. The new location has really come together under her guidance, and her positive attitude has been great at boosting our morale. Even as my positive attitude has started to flag a little in the past few days, she has always helped to bring it back up. I didn’t expect to work with her as much as I have in the past few weeks, but I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to get to know her.
As we’re doing our last-minute touches to the resource center at the new location, I have had the opportunity to really see how connected the LHRC is with other CIIP partners. I have reached out to places like the Youth-Empowered Society for updates to some outdated resources we have available, and event calendars for places like STARTRACK adorn our bulletin board. While there isn’t a lot of time left at my internship for something extensive, I’m looking forward to adding some more resources from other CIIP partner organizations before I leave.
As I’m sure many other people are thinking too, I can’t believe its already week 6 of my time here at the Tatum center. I can still vividly remember stepping foot into the Great Hall for the first day of orientation, slightly nervous about meeting so many new people at once. Or pulling up to the Tatum center and shaking my supervisor’s hand while he was still a stranger to me. Those memories seem so far away, yet so close at the same time. I can’t help but already think about how much I’ve experienced during these two months. As much as I would like to go more in-depth, though, I know the last week’s reflection will be more along the lines of reflecting on the experience as a whole, so I’ll hold off on sharing those thoughts at the moment.
This weekend I drove up to my hometown, Union, NJ. For those who aren’t familiar with Union (probably everyone reading this), it is a very diverse, suburban neighborhood in northern New Jersey. A neighborhood comprised of primarily middle-class residents, I couldn’t help but compare the town that I grew up in and hold so close to my heart, with Baltimore, the city that I currently reside in and am starting to claim as my own. It was kind of a shock going back to my hometown after getting so accustomed to Baltimore city life.
A characteristic of Union that I really identified as different from Baltimore is the presence of community engagement. During my time at the Tatum center, I’ve encountered so many residents in the neighborhood that are so willing to get involved and to give their input into stuff happening in the community. Being around community input meetings for new developments such as bike lanes, murals, or housing in the neighborhood were all new experiences for me. And it made me realize that at home in Union, it just seems that none of that stuff is of big concern to the residents. For sure there are people in Union that are invested in the state of the community, but I’ve just never really been exposed to that, mostly because the town is already doing well enough and there are relatively so little issues, that such changes are merely bonuses. It’s like from my experiences back home in NJ, whatever issues that came up seemed to handle themselves without much effort from community members. Whereas here in the Barclay neighborhood of Baltimore, residents are active and engaged with whatever issue is at hand. In a way, I just feel like the Baltimore residents that I have encountered care more about their city than residents in Union care about theirs.
To finish off this revelation, I just want to say that community organizing has been a completely new and eye-opening experience to me. I’ve learned that there is something empowering about actively being a part of a community, trying to help yourself and those around you collectively live better. So many people want to go on to make a difference in the world, but so many people (including me) have forgotten that it can start (and end) by following the simple rule: love your neighbor as yourself.
Two more weeks. Two.
Rather than reflecting on the past six weeks, I’m going to reflect on the first week. In fact, I’m going to reflect on the third day, the day when I no longer felt like a stranger in my workplace.
It was Wednesday night, which meant that United Workers was facilitating its weekly “Action Planning” meeting. We—meaning me, my co-workers, and community members—were gathered in the basement of 2640 St. Paul, the homely headquarters of United Workers. (I say homely, out of love.)
The meeting was humid and welcoming. Warm. We were clustered at a couple tables, wedged between freshly printed paper and Ledo’s pizza. The dietary staples of United Workers’ organizers. And, as we filled our bellies with cheese-y goodness and discourse about affordable housing, I—the “eager-to-prove-herself”, “overly-helpful-to-the-point-that-it’s-annoying” intern—was falling asleep.
Yes. I was falling asleep.
Wednesday was the first of many eight hour days, four hours of petitioning plus four hours of office work, and I was really bleeping tired. I have no explanations, no excuses, nothing. I was just tired.
If you’re experiencing second-hand embarrassment from imagining my stupor, then you can stop worrying. Unless they read this blog post, they will have no recollection of my woozy eyelids, or the drool dripping from my mouth (kidding). Remember that I was the “eager-to-prove-herself”, “overly-helpful-to-the-point-that-it’s-annoying” intern. I wasn’t going to let my coworkers see me dozing off.
However, I needed a little help. Pinching my arm and methodically nibbling pizza was not waking me up. I could feel my body sink into the floor; I could feel rocks on my eyelids. Luckily for me and my dignity, Action Planning was the perfect meeting to (almost) fall asleep.
While the first portion of the meeting was stationary, strategizing, the second was dynamic, phone-banking. And, when I watched my co-workers transition from strategizing to phone banking, I snapped back to life.
Not that strategy isn’t exciting (I repeat, I was tired), but there was something refreshingly different about a meeting turning to a collective action. It was energizing to watch a group of people, who were debating passionately about the future of a fair development campaign only a few minutes ago, work towards something concrete.
The buzz in the air was intoxicating. It was at that moment, when I was making calls with co-workers and community members, that I felt like I was a part of something. I felt like I was a part of the United Workers’ community. I no longer felt like a stranger.Tags: 2018, 29th Street Community Center, Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Maryland Physicians for a National Health Program, Nate Tatum Community Center, Ruth M. Kirk Recreation Center, United Workers, Week 6