Southwest Baltimore's Potent Partnership

Jul 16, 2015


Windy Blount's "Bloom Your Block" display brightens Union Square on a rainy day.
Credit Fraser Smith

Unprecedented help may be on the way the neighborhoods of southwest Baltimore.  Maryland's Baltimore-based professional schools are joining seven southwest Baltimore communities to promote workforce development, education and healthcare.

One of the seven neighborhoods, Union Square, offers an ideal early test for the idea that institutional expertise and passionate city dwellers will demonstrate untapped synergy.

The partnership could illustrate ways for cities to survive and prosper – or so its leadership believes. Union Square's hidden resurgence flows literally from little things: flowers and cookies and community projects – and from people who love the togetherness of city life.

Suddenly they find themselves working with an institution that had seemed indifferent to them at best. Led by Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the bristling high-rise campus now reaches across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the stoops of Union Square, Pigtown and five other historic city neighborhoods.

Despite its share of poverty, joblessness and falling down houses, Union Square flourishes a hidden gem. "Bloom Your Block," a best-flower contest, caught newcomer Brendon Jackson's eye first. Then he heard about the summer band concerts at Union Square and the "Cookie Tour," a Christmas-time, neighborhood-wide open house. During one of the regular Saturday morning biscuit-meet ups, Jackson talked about his new neighborhood.

"There are a lot of really passionate people here, a lot of strong personalities who really believe in Union Square and care very deeply about its future and so they’ve created a whole eco system here," he said. "It’s just sort of continually feeding itself.  As new people come into the community and buy into it it sort of expands." If you move in, he was told, there’s an unofficial requirement:  You have to bring an idea.

He decided to invite people in for periodic brain storming sessions at his house west of Union Square. The community's vibrancy – its economic and ethnic and international diversity -- hooked him. "It's sort of a testament to the imagination and the spirit of the people here and I wanted to be part of that.  I've never really had that anywhere..." he sai.

Michael Seipp, the Southwest Partnership’s new executive director, say Brendon Jackson put his finger on the essence of neighborhood strength. "Union Square has built a neighborhood association that protects the architectural integrity of the community but they’ve also built a social system that makes people want to come, not just to their houses but to their neighborhoods" he said.  Nor is Union Square the partnership's only strong community, the veteran community organizer Seipp says. "In every neighborhood there is an incredible asset that you can build on." And, he says, the almost unique melding of community and institutional power is about to become clear. When the Hollins Street Market is re-developed, for example.

This and other improvement projects will require raising $40 million.  "If we’re going to succeed we have to become something of a steamroller now that we have this strong partnership even the bureaucracies are beginning to respond to the partnership because it’s not one neighborhood of 500 people. It’s 40,000 people," he said.  About $215,000 in operating money has come from the Goldseker Foundation ($100,000) and from various other sources: University of Maryland, Baltimore, $30,000; University of Maryland BioPark, $30,000; Wexford Science + Technology, $30,000; University of Maryland Medical System, $15,000; and Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, $10,000.

A methadone clinic was expanding in the neighborhoods with little neighborhood involvement. The neighborhood knows the importance of drug treatment. It does not oppose the clinics, but it wants to be involved in issues of size and location.  Dr. Perman thought the neighborhood had a point.  He invited representatives of the community to meet with him and enjoy wine and cheese and cookies. He knew his campus and the surrounding community had some of the same issues. Having actually met each other, these actors quickly agreed to form a partnership.

"Out of controversy was born a partnership and friendship that ideally should happen when people are not sure of each other’s motives." Perman’s basic conclusion was a simple but profound one, not the conclusion made by every big institution. "It is our community," he said.

So the university’s social work school, its law school and its business school have representatives on the Southwest Partnership board. This fall, the medical school will begin a training program for 6th graders in neighborhood. The idea: train locally for jobs in local institutions such as the nearby bio-park. Dr. Perman says Union Square represents the spirit this investment must have.

Newcomer Michael Johnson felt the good vibe during a house hunting walk. "Chicago’s my home," he said. "I lived there 35 years. This neighborhood makes me feel a lot like I felt at home in Chicago."

Another moment of discovery for the neighborhood came during the Freddie Gray unrest. When a dinner meeting on the University of Baltimore campus was canceled, the food was returned to CUPs, a Hollins Roundhouse neighborhood coffee shop, which had catered the event. Hollins Roundhouse is one of the Southwest Partnership’s seven neighborhoods.

CUPs and others decided to turn the windfall into a pro-Baltimore picnic.

Bif Browning, Union Square’s chief unofficial organizer, thought the community was fighting back against riot-driven imagery.  

“That was in complete contrast to what the national media was saying, that we had lost control and we had 150 people from 7 neighborhoods out there eating in the street, talking,he said.

The neighborhood usually expresses itself under less stress.  Windy Blount who lives at 1320 West Lombard Street remembers when a project called "Bloom Your Block” became a tradition.  It was her neighbor Andrea Leahy's idea. Andrea thought a "flower" contest would brighten the stoops and bring people together. Windy loaned some of her pots to friends in that first year. Her own entry took second place.  Neighborliness, she decided, had its limits. "After that it was game-face on."  

She reclaimed some of her pots, bought new ones and prepared to show her stuff. Thus did her streak begin. "I'm four-year champion."  Having won against recently, she's now a 5-year winner. If there are steps to her house you can’t see them. Blooms of every variety are in the way.  "Bloom Your Block" binds the noble Baltimore row houses on West Lombard with the understated mansions on tree-shaded Hollins a block north. Almost everyone on these streets has a "Bloom Your Block" window sign – provided free by Andrea Leahy's neighborhood printing business.  Turns out more than bragging rights were at stake.

Before the contest started five years ago, about a dozen houses on her West Lombard Street were boarded up. Two weeks ago, renovation began on one of the two remaining vacants. Neighborhoods can turn themselves around. Universities, Dr. Perman said, must be part of the process. "We should not sit here and think that if we don’t have a better and better community that we will sustain our greatness," he said.  On many Saturdays, Michael Johnson and Brendon Jackson and Bif Browning head for Kathy Nelson’s house on West Lombard where her husband Larry makes biscuits. The rules? Drop by. Don’t wait for an invitation. A writer and producer who began her career with the Today Show, Nelson now has her own company.

"When we moved here my husband got sick two days after we moved in.  I didn’t know a soul in this neighborhood. And by the end of the week I pretty much knew everybody," she says.  Bottom line? "We take care of each other." And now they have powerful helpmates.