How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with No Boundaries Coalition and Impact Hub Baltimore)

I realize that renaming this project “Interaction Baltimore” three weeks ago, just as interaction was about to become one of the most feared activities on the planet, might not have been the most timely decision. But as much of the city, and much of the world, is coming to a standstill in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I do feel this project gives me an opportunity to shine a light on the work in our local communities that is still important in the face of a challenge like this.

My original plan for this week was to write about Strong City Baltimore‘s move to East Baltimore, and what that could mean for an underserved community. Then next week I was going to spotlight Baltimore Safe Haven‘s efforts to minimize the harm that routinely comes to some of the most marginalized people in our city. I’m shelving those stories for the moment. I’ll publish them when all of our minds aren’t focused on this global threat.

But as much as coronavirus is rightly demanding our attention, it also seems wrong to forget about the people working to make our city safer, stronger, healthier and more integrated. That work is still going on, even if it’s harder now, and I want people to know about it.

Always B-Mo small

I want to see how the coronavirus threat, and the social distancing that has become necessary because of it, is affecting local communities in Baltimore. I want to know how people are dealing with it, what lessons they’re learning and what they anticipate in the weeks and months ahead. So I’m reaching out to people all over the city and asking them, How do we build community when we can’t be near each other?

This is the beginning of a series. I don’t know how long it will last. At this time, there hasn’t been a reported case of coronavirus in Baltimore City (though there have been two in the county). The conversations I’ve had so far have reflected the fact that we are in the preventative stage right now, and not dealing with a local outbreak. I don’t know where they will go from here.

Yesterday I talked to Nabeehah Azeez and Ashiah Parker at No Boundaries Coalition and Michelle Geiss at Impact Hub Baltimore. Here’s what they said…

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Katie Lautar of Baltimore Green Space: Nature is “Part of the Narrative of Our City”

The benefits of green space are well documented. It’s good for our health, including mental health. It reduces crime and violence. It can cut down on illegal trash dumping. It provides a cooling effect during heat waves. And it promotes social cohesion and community engagement.

What might be less well documented is how rich Baltimore City is with green space – and well-maintained green space, at that.

Baltimore Green Space currently has a database of 311 green spaces in the city that neighbors are caring for, according to Executive Director Katie Lautar. And she said there are more spaces that exist but haven’t made it into the database.

This abundance of nature, along with the residents who tend to it, is “part of the narrative of our city,” she said. “It’s more valuable than anybody ever recognizes.”

Baltimore Green Space is a land trust dedicated to preserving the city’s community-managed open spaces. It currently owns 15 spaces around the city, totaling more than five acres, including gardens, parks, and forest patches.

The Remington Village Green, for example, is a small garden growing food, flowers and native plants. Tucked away in an alleyway near what is now a thriving retail district, the garden was established by locals in 2008, transforming a previously “discarded” space into a center of community engagement.

Remington Village Green

Remington Village Green (pictured in early March)

In another alley in East Baltimore, elderly residents tend to the 500 North Duncan Street Community Garden. This space, which stands out with its colorful artwork and bird houses, breaks up a sea of concrete with green grass and a variety of plants and flowers, and also provides food for the locals.

500 N Duncan Garden

The 500 North Duncan Street Community Garden (pictured in early March)

And in Northeast Baltimore, there’s the more expansive Fairwood Forest. Baltimore Green Space was able to purchase the four-acre forest in the Glenham-Belair neighborhood in 2018 thanks in part to a tax exemption passed by the city council two years earlier. Without that, Katie said, the organization wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes on the land.

Fairwood Forest

“When it comes to forests,” Katie said, “we play a much larger role.” That’s because forests have a different ecology than other green spaces, and she said there was no other organization in the city teaching residents how to care for them before Baltimore Green Space took that role.

In 2013, Baltimore Green Space estimated that 20 percent of Baltimore’s tree canopy exists in forest patches outside parks. Ownership records of these areas can be complicated, and many people don’t realize that the land provides value to the community.

Preserving these forest patches has been a major part of Baltimore Green Space’s advocacy work. And Katie said she wishes the city would place a higher priority on planting new forest. Even small patches, she said, can improve stormwater management and increase climate resilience.

These benefits are not abstract. We see the effects of polluted stormwater in the Inner Harbor, which at one time was supposed to be swimmable and fishable by 2020. And as a 2019 Capital News Service series reported, lack of greenery can lead to excessive temperatures during heat waves, which come with a number of potential health problems for residents.

The benefits of community-managed gardens and parks might be even more immediate. I asked Katie if residents who are focused on their most basic needs – such as putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads – can be expected to make green space a priority. She replied that they already make it a priority.

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A “Culture of Openness”: Adam Bouhmad of Project Waves on Expanding Internet Access in Baltimore

Access to the internet is a human right. So says the United Nations, which in 2016 passed a resolution condemning governments’ disruption of internet access as a human rights violation.

But in Baltimore, many people lack affordable, reliable options to connect to the internet.  The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 28% of Baltimore households did not have a broadband internet subscription between 2014 and 2018. That’s 66,000 homes. And trends suggest that African-American and Latinx households are among the most impacted.

Adam Bouhmad created Project Waves to empower Baltimore residents to erase that disparity.

“That’s why I have bags under my eyes,” he told me. He used to spend night after night at The Bun Shop in Mt. Vernon researching efforts to bridge the digital divide around the world. He’d stay until the shop closed at 3 a.m. and still go to his full-time tech job in the morning.

Last year he got a chance to put his plan into action, beginning in Sharp-Leadenhall.

It started with community outreach. He spent several months building a relationship with the neighborhood association. “I think it’s important to be a continued face that folks recognize,” he said. When the time was right, he distributed 300 flyers for his project around the community. From that he got 15 households that signed up to be considered for a low-cost, high-speed internet setup

The connection itself comes from an anchor institution: a place in the community that people trust and that agrees to share its internet access. In Sharp-Leadenhall’s case, that’s the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, where Adam used to work, in nearby Federal Hill.

Waves antennae relay

From the roof of the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, an antenna (left) sends a signal to Key Tech’s roof deck, where another antenna (right) sends it to homes in nearby Sharp-Leadenhall.

It’s easy enough to climb up onto the roof of the anchor institution and set up an antenna, which costs less than $150 and sends a signal up to 15 miles. But it gets tricky if there isn’t a clear line of sight to the homes being served. That was the case here. To get the signal where it needed to go, Adam needed a relay on top of some other building. So he went to Key Tech a half-block away and asked the bosses if he could set up a pair of antennas on their roof deck. They said yes.

The last step is setting up a receiver on the exterior of the end user’s home and wiring it to a router inside. In exchange for this setup, Waves asks for a suggested monthly donation of $10 from each subscriber.

That’s how two homes in Sharp-Leadenhall are now getting affordable internet access from the Digital Harbor Foundation anchor site. Adam said the speed for each connection is between 40 and 50 Mbps, about twice as fast as necessary to stream ultra-high-definition video.

As I said, there were 15 signups for high-speed access in the neighborhood. So this project isn’t finished.

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Brittany Young of B-360: “We All Need Positive Outlets in a Very Stressed City”

Dirt bike culture is a part of Baltimore. The question is whether it can thrive in the city without generating conflict.

Brittany Young thinks so, or is at least working toward that goal. She’s the founder of B-360, which stands for “Be the revolution.” The revolution is a fundamental change in people’s mindset toward dirt bikes and the people who ride them.

“We all need a positive outlet in a very stressed city,” she told me.

But wait a second: Aren’t dirt bikes disruptive? Aren’t they dangerous? Aren’t they illegal? Haven’t people been killed, both on the bikes and in their pathways?

I’ve heard people in Baltimore defend street riding, or at least romanticize it while they acknowledge the danger. But not Brittany. She said B-360 and the Baltimore Police Department have the same goal: zero dirt bike riders on the street.

Instead of cracking down on riders with a police task force, though, B-360 tries to steer them toward spaces where they can express themselves and relieve stress without posing a danger to themselves or others.

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After repairing their bikes, B-360 students learn how to ride safely out of traffic in preparation for their showcase.

More than that, B-360 uses dirt biking as a launching point toward education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Moving from the pavement to the classroom, popping a wheelie can be framed as a math equation. A fascination with dirt bike design can be used to learn 3D drawing and printing. Repairing dirt bikes can be translated into practical job skills. Brittany uses the intersection between dirt biking and STEM education to show young people – especially young black people – how smart they already are.

This aspect of Brittany’s work has been well documented, and is worth your time to look into. There’s this article in The Baltimore Sun, for example. And this one in Forbes. And this one in Vice. You’ll also find several videos on the B-360 website that focus on STEM education programming.

For this story, I want to focus on dirt biking in Baltimore.

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In a City of Neighborhoods, Morrell Park Is Distinct – but Distinctly Baltimore

To me, climbing up Washington Boulevard from under the I-95 overpass into Morrell Park feels like crossing into a different world. The land of sports stadiums, Horseshoe Casino and the Montgomery Park building – all just a short distance behind me – seems like a faint memory.

And yet one thing is certain: I’m definitely in Baltimore.

Morrell Park mural

The neighborhood’s unassuming Charm City flavor was on display when I spoke with Wendy Roberts, President of the Morrell Park Community Association. As we wrapped up the interview – during which we talked about everything from children’s activities to 311 requests to race relations to violent crime – Ms. Roberts told me it was just like “having a conversation with my neighbor.”

(As a resident of the Charles Village/Old Goucher area, roughly five miles away, I took it as a compliment.)

If you’re wondering how to pronounce the name – MOR-rell or mor-RELL – Ms. Roberts told me it doesn’t matter. Everyone says it differently, and the variations increase when you factor in the Bawlmerese dialect that is very much alive and well in Morrell Park.

In spite of my impression of the neighborhood as a world of its own, Morrell Park was originally part of Charles Carroll’s “Georgia Plantation” that surrounded Mount Clare Mansion in Carroll Park to the north. (The plantation also included Westport, Violetville and Mount Winans.) Ms. Roberts hasn’t yet tracked down exactly when the land in Morrell Park was sold to housing developers, but she continues to search the history books and shares what she can find with the community.

Morrell Park map

Today the boulevard that serves as Morrell Park’s main street – lined with taverns, small businesses and chains like Royal Farms and Aldi – is also a popular route in and out of town from points southwest. It’s been a source of disappointment for Ms. Roberts that the neighborhood hasn’t seen the kind of development that’s happened in nearby Pigtown since the stadiums and casino were built.

“We are the main street that goes through to the stadiums or the harbor,” she said. “As a community, we would like to try to make it a little better so that it looks nicer for when people drive through.”

Of course, development in Baltimore often comes with conflict over displacement, or preserving the neighborhood’s “character” (a loaded term, I know). And perhaps the lack of recent development compared to nearby areas is one reason Morrell Park defies stereotyping.

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