Forgotten planters in transformation in Belair-Edison

Seventeen forgotten planters line Belair road through the community of Belair-Edison. These non-descript planters blend into the sidewalk and many of them haven’t housed a thriving plant for the last few seasons. As part of a greater movement of public art, community engagement, and beautification in Belair-Edison, the neighborhood is reclaiming these long forgotten planters through the craft of mosaic art.

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Maman Rikin, mosaic art teacher

Monday night mosaic art workshops held at the local public charter school, AFYA, are attended by community members of all ages and led by Maman Rikin, a professor of fine arts at Baltimore County Community College. To begin a series that showcases some of the exciting developments in Belair-Edison, we talked to a few new-found mosaic artists who have been participating in the workshops.

Joyce and Pat are members of a senior group called the Silver Angels that meets twice a month at the library. Joyce has been a resident of Belair-Edison since 1997 and her favorite thing about her neighborhood are the parks and the trees. She likes that the community is small enough that people recognize each other and look out for each other, even if they don’t know everyone’s names. If she could change one thing about Belair-Edison, it would be to encourage local landlords to be more accountable for their properties to help keep the neighborhood clean. This is her first time doing mosaic art, and she’s enjoying trying something new!

Pat and Joyce
Pat and Joyce

Pat has been a resident of Belair-Edison since 1994 and she still remembers the first person to stop by her home and welcome her to the neighborhood.  Pat is a former Belair Road business owner and she is full of neighborhood stories. In her stories of Belair-Edison, neighbors work together to advocate on behalf of the youth,  collaborate to create a culture of cleaning up the block, or come together like a family to support each other. Mosaic art is a new interest for her, but for Pat, it seems that anything for the betterment of the neighborhood is something she’s happy to be a part of.

Noel and Abby
Noel and Abby

Abby has been a math teacher at AFYA for 7 years and she is the school’s host for the workshops. She coordinated with Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc. to get her students involved in a community clean-up on September 11th this year and has plans to get her students involved in decorating more planters with mosaic art this spring. What Abby likes best about Belair-Edison is that AFYA is right in the middle of the community, and it’s important to Abby that her students are involved in service activities that are central to the community. This is her first time doing art in a public way and she’s enjoying the mosaic process because of its inexact nature. As a math teacher she’s so often focused on accuracy, so it’s been a good outlet to create something that is never exact.

Abby runs a student club with the art teacher Noel, a fellow mosaic art workshop participant, and they will be leading the next wave of mosaic art planters as a project for their students. The goal is that by creating their own mosaic planter designs and contributing something special to the community the middle school aged students will feel a sense of ownership for their community and pride for their contribution. She loves the potential a community art project like this could have for her students to learn about community development, urban renewal, and art!

Each community artist shared their unique vision for what a better Belair-Edison could look like, but one thing that Joyce, Pat, and Abby all shared, was that Belair-Edison is a community that cares, and this is certainly something that is evident at the mosaic art workshops. Each mosaic artist shares a sense of responsibility for the task at hand, and is committed to working towards something rejuvenated and beautiful to share with the neighborhood.

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10+ workshops and many hours later…..

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Our Newest Homeowner Proves the Power of Resilience

Joseph Butler recently purchased a newly renovated home from St. Ambrose in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. Fifty-seven years old and a first time homebuyer, Butler said that he was looking ahead to retirement and wanted something to call his own, “anyone can own a car, but a home- that’s something special.”Joseph Butler

Mr. Butler is a particularly special first time homeowner for St. Ambrose because he is a former tenant with St. Ambrose Rental Services. He lived in St. Martin’s apartments in West Baltimore for seven years before purchasing his new home in Belair-Edison. As the first client who has both rented from St. Ambrose and purchased a St. Ambrose home, we sat down with Butler to inquire about his journey to homeownership.

This spring, “things just fell into place” for Butler, who had always dreamed of owning his own home. Although he admits that he had his doubts during the home-buying process. Things were moving slowly before the settlement and his patience was tested as he waited for the final approval to go through. Working with Denise Hairston, our in-house realtor at St. Ambrose, Butler finally went to settlement on Friday, June 12th, accompanied at the signing table by his proud father.

Through support from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) based in Washington, DC, St. Ambrose offers closing cost assistance grants for first time homebuyers. This special funding helps us to bring new homeowners into Baltimore neighborhoods. Butler, however, was a special case.  Because he was our renter at the time, a technicality prevented St. Ambrose from offering him the closing cost grant. But NFHA wouldn’t allow a small complication to prevent Butler from receiving this support. The last thing to fall into place for Butler was a grant check directly from NFHA to support his closing costs. Hairston’s advocacy on Butler’s behalf was critical in ensuring this benefit was accepted by the lender.

Butler’s advice to someone who wants to own a home is to “save money, be patient” and citing the old adage that so often rings true, “Rome was not built in a day.” He also recommends others to be proactive in addressing their credit issues. “Have an open conversation with those who you owe debts.”

Resilience and gratitude are two other factors that undoubtedly contributed to Butler’s success in achieving his lifelong goal.  An army veteran from the DC area, Butler moved to Baltimore in 1998. Butler was honest and candid about his life’s journey. A former drug user, Butler went through rehab at Maryland Center for Veterans Education (MCVET) in 2000 and has been clean for 15 years. While living in St. Martin’s, Butler paid off all of his debts and sought assistance to help to repair his credit in order to prepare to take out a mortgage. “I am so blessed,” Butler emphasizes when he speaks of his journey to homeownership. His warm smile radiates his appreciation for life’s lessons and successes.

Mr. Butler works for the federal government as a security guard for the Smithsonian. He commutes to Landover, Maryland where he works an evening shift at the Smithsonian storage facility. He’s also worked at the American Indian, Air and Space, American History, and Natural History museums. Butler has loved the opportunity to learn from museum curators during his tenure at the Smithsonian. The American History Museum is his favorite, noting a Duke Ellington exhibit, JK Lilly’s historic coin collection, and the first ladies’ inaugural dresses.  Another testament to Butler’s ethic, he actually left his position at the Smithsonian for several years and was successful in earning his job back- not an easy feat for a position in the government.

What is Mr. Butler looking forward to about his new home? For one, all of the appliances are brand new. The luxury of not having to worry about replacing the air conditioning, furnace, and kitchen appliances is peace of mind for a first time home buyer, and having his own brand new washer and dryer means he has the privilege of doing laundry in the comfort of his own home. Another amenity about his new home is that he can practice his saxophones (both alto and tenor) more freely than he could in his apartment. Afforded with both a front and backyard, he’s also looking forward to sitting outside and drinking coffee while he reads the paper.

When asked what attracted Butler to Belair-Edison in particular, he didn’t hesitate for a moment before responding, “It’s nice and quiet. Listen… all you hear is the wind blowing across the trees.” Indeed, nestled on a quiet street next to Herring Run Park, Butler’s new home is far enough from the bustle to feel at complete peace.

“This will always be mine,” Butler says with pride. “I am so blessed.”

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Summer at St. Ambrose: Sustaining Community Connections

For a few days during the week, I work at St. Ambrose. In the morning and evening as I walk to and from the revitalized row houses that are St. Ambrose, I am most often greeted by someone who is going to work, returning home, or unwinding on their front porch. This exchange brings to mind an image of affability that seems to be a remnant of my parents’ generation.

I am always surprised when I talk to my peers, who should feel that life is at its peak, that they truly feel lonely and disconnected. It is the irony of my generation, that with more means of communication than any previous generation, we are lacking an intrinsic sense of connection. As I simultaneously visualize these two generational images – neighbors greeting one another from their porches, verses individuals posting updates of their locations and activities on the internet – it seems clear that the significance of verbal communication and face-to-face connection is eroding. With this erosion of face-to-face interaction and connection is a loss of community.

During the past couple of weeks, I attended several St. Ambrose events. One weekend, I went to St. Ambrose’s picnic at Herring Run Park, which celebrated the revitalization of 137 homes in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. St. Ambrose homeowners and community members in the Belair-Edison area, as well as St. Ambrose staff were able to eat, dance, and socialize. Last week, I joined numerous community development organizations in saying goodbye to the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative (BNC), and reflecting on the work the organization completed in revitalizing and recreating neighborhoods to be safe, livable, cared for, and attractive.

These events are significant because they exemplify the building of community. The idea of community is a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. I am convinced that fellowship is a product of personal interaction, and that these celebrations of accomplishments encourage fellowship by recognizing the fulfillment of shared goals.

The St. Ambrose Legal Department is partnering with Community Law In Action (CLIA), an organization that works with youth to build them into leaders who will help transform their own communities. St. Ambrose attorneys are participating in the Corporate Mentoring program of CLIA. In this program, high school juniors and seniors are involved in many activities, one of which involves site visits to a Baltimore office, once a month. During these Mentor Days, students work on advocacy projects under the supervision of an attorney, participate in conversations with speakers about college, careers, and the legal profession, have mentoring sessions to work on SATs and college applications, and visit Annapolis.

In partnering with CLIA, St. Ambrose is continuing its mission of community development by engaging with a generation of young community members. The attorneys and students interact in a space that reconciles the goals and attitudes of both an older and younger generation. Gaining experience, attending college, and participating in community advocacy is part of individual and community development in the present, but CLIA is also involved in preserving the importance of face-to-face communication, interaction, and connection.

Phillip Westry, an attorney at St. Ambrose and a past director of the CLIA Youth Connection Program, describes the significance of mentoring as, “filling in a gap”. Phillip explains that students are able to gain the information and experience needed to more firmly establish their own educational and career goals. The personal connection and interaction that is also a part of mentoring, founds a base of support, encouragement, and connection, allowing young people to explore with confidence. As CLIA exemplifies, connection and community need not erode with every passing generation, if today’s community leaders and builders continue to include an ideal of affability within and among generations and people.

Character Is Key

In the depths of the recession, many people found strength and security within their immediate communities. People sought solace and discovered it in one another, in their neighbors. And not just the families next door, but neighbors like St. Ambrose, which is able to provide professional foreclosure support and offer education and resources to beleaguered homeowners during a crisis and in their own times of need, providing stability to neighborhoods in turbulent times.

Now that the country is moving towards financial stability, “cities are seeking the recipe for economic success in a rapidly changing global marketplace,” according to urban planner Edward McMahon. In his article, entitled “Character Is Key to an Economically Vibrant City,” McMahon cites one particularly surprising necessity for economic success- “community distinctiveness”. Referencing the Soul of the Community Survey put forth by the Knight Foundation and Gallup pollsters, McMahon talks about community appeal and its relationship to economic strength. Turns out, the stronger the bonds are between a community and its residents, the stronger the economy is. It appears a community’s uniqueness adds another dimension to its economic and social value.

Each of the neighborhoods that St. Ambrose works in has its unique flavor and identity.  Often shaped by the housing stock, Belair-Edison enjoys the distinctive style of the Baltimore Rowhome, the Waverlies are more diverse and Victorian, Lauraville and Hamilton have Mission type bungalows and each has a strong community presence through activism and engagement.

For many of the same reasons that I’ve decided to call Baltimore my home, this city reflects McMahon’s notion of community distinctiveness and character- and I believe that it works to Baltimore’s advantage. The strong sense of identity that defines each of Baltimore’s unique neighborhoods brings residents together and reinforces ties to the city. Indeed it seems that Baltimore’s charm is the key to the future.

The article mentioned above was recently published in the Atlantic Cities, an online magazine and division of the Atlantic. Atlantic Cities explores issues faced by cities worldwide and presents news, analysis, data, and trends, and innovative ideas for community improvement and revitalization.

Here’s a product of the Soul of the Community Survey that talks about community attachment: 

 

Why are you attached to Baltimore?

Your New Belair-Edison Neighbors

St. Ambrose recently hosted a happy hour for new homeowners and friends of the agency at the Station North Arts Cafe.  We were so grateful that Ms. Shanice Jones, who recently bought a St. Ambrose home, came and met other homeowners and some staff.  Here is her uplifting story as told by Belair-Neighborhoods, Inc.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” – Written by Kadija Hart for Belair-Edison Neighborhood News Spring 2012

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Ms. Shanice Jones and her son, new neighbors in Belair-Edison.

When Ms. Jones came to Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc. (BENI) First Time Home Buyer’s Workshop, back in June of 2011, she knew homeownership was in the very near future. After conducting her one-on-one counseling session with Roy Miller, BENI’s Homeownership Specialist, she knew that Belair-Edison was the neighborhood that she and her 15 year old son would soon call their home!  “Mr. Miller was very nice and knowledgeable”, said Jones. “He made me feel comfortable … and reassured me that this was the community for my family.”

With the help of her phenomenal Realtor, Yolanda Powell of Long & Foster, Jones closed on a newly renovated St. Ambrose home on Cliftmont Ave.  “The day I closed was move in day too,” said Jones. “My friends and family were waiting for me, outside, with the U-Haul Truck. We were so excited!”

Ms. Jones had been a renter for over 10 years and was somewhat afraid of taking the leap into homeownership. However, she wanted to provide a stable environment for her son. “I want to be an example for my son,” she said.  “Not only by teaching him responsibility, but should anything ever happen to me, I want to be able to make sure that his future is taken care of. This is an investment in his future.”

The path to homeownership was a bit of a long one, but that didn’t matter to Jones. She used the time to become fully educated about all of the closing cost assistance she was eligible for and received a large amount of grant assistance.

“I went on the Trolley Tour and spoke with Live Baltimore and Healthy Neighborhoods. I worked with St. Ambrose, and I even received an FHA grant,” said Jones. “I was determined.”

The oldest grandchild on her maternal side, she is the first grandchild to purchase a home.  Jones loves being the example for her family and friends. “I tell as many as people as possible about this program,” she said. “I want to help them accomplish their dreams like I have.”  What Ms. Jones loves the most about her block, is that it is filled with homeowners.  “I was tired of renting from unprofessional landlords who seemed all about just collecting rent and not making me feel like the house I lived in was mine,” said Jones.

“I know that many renters expect the landlords to keep up the property, but it’s important they do their part too,” she said. “Homeowners protect the value of their properties, and that’s what I like about my block.”  In addition to the block’s charm, and her homes new renovations, Jones loves her parking pad. “I can just park in the back and bring my groceries right in,” she said. “I don’t ever have to look for a parking space!”

Ms. Jones has big plans in store including finishing up her BA in Accounting at Sojourner-Douglass College, continuing to be a foster parent to young children, helping her son achieve academic success while in High School, and starting her own business!   “I am extremely motivated, always trying to accomplish things that will allow my son to have the best quality of life as possible,” Ms. Jones affirmed.  Welcome the Joneses to neighborhood!