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…..





Demolition! Oh No! OH, YES!

In the seven years I have lived in Baltimore, I have seen amazing changes in and around my community, both where I live -Waverly, and where I work – Barclay/Harwood.  However, so much of the progress is overshadowed by the demoralizing sight of derelict houses, plywood covered doors and windows and sky showing through destroyed roofs -visions from a war zone.

And based on the data map published this week in the City Paper –  overlaying the homicides that have occurred this year -126 – on top of a map of the vacants in the city, those areas are war zones.

However, I want to talk about a garden.  

At the end of Falls Street which is one block long and runs from 24th to 25th Street between Barclay and Guilford, there was an abandoned end-of -row property.  During the 7 years I have worked on 25th Street, mountains of household goods were dumped in the back yard of the house and drug dealers regularly used it to store their wares and offer free samples to prospective customers.  Not a pretty or encouraging environment for the little ones in the home whose backyard looked out on it.

Two months ago, Baltimore Housing brought in a demolition team of bulldozers and dumpsters and took it down and BAM! a pretty fenced-in garden space with pebble walkways and flowers and baby trees grew up in its place.

Imagination blossoms and neighborhoods feel empowered when they are given a blank canvas not crammed with falling down bricks and trash.

Let the demolition continue!


Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N.

And we’re back: we will resume our regular weekly posting shortly.

In the mean time, we encourage readers to take a look at the website of Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N., an advocacy organization whose stated purpose is pasted below.  The website of A.C.T.I.O.N.–an acronym for A Call to Invest In Our Neighborhoods–contains several of excellent resources and news updates.

Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N. (A Call To Invest in Our Neighborhoods) is a grassroots campaign led by a broad, cross-industry coalition of over 290 national, state, and local organizations.

Through Housing Credit advocacy and education, the A.C.T.I.O.N. campaign focuses on ensuring that low-income working  families  throughout the nation have access to decent, safe, affordable rental housing.

As the 112th Congress considers tax reform and deficit reduction solutions, the campaign has reconvened to revise its strategy in light of the changed political and fiscal environment.  Moving forward, A.C.T.I.O.N. will focus on both protecting and preserving the Housing Credit in whatever deficit reduction or tax reform plan Congress considers, and enacting national consensus proposals to sustain the program’s  effectiveness and efficiency in solving the nation’s affordable rental housing challenges.

While Unemployment Improves, Many Citizens Remain Unable to Meet Basic Needs

Source: New York Times

Commentators around the country have been touting last month’s uplifting unemployment statistics, which indicate, ever so subtly, that the nation’s job situation may be improving.  While many large businesses have remained profitable throughout the recession, it now appears that the private sector is willing to invest in new hiring, suggesting an increased demand for goods and services.

As the Obama administration enjoys temporary praise, a new study, highlighted a few days back in the New York Times, presents a gloomier picture.  The study demonstrates that the greater job creation we’re experiencing may be much less rosier that we think, because many of the country’s newly created jobs do not offer a living wage.

The study was commissioned by the non-profit, Wider Opportunities for Women, which authoritatively titled their report, “The Basic Economic Security Tables for the United States.”  In order to arrive at their disconcerting findings, the study’s researchers had to determine what constitutes a living wage.  Thus, the many tables presented by the study premise themselves on the following notion:

“Families, the media and policymakers often focus their attention on volatile, rising expenses, such as food and fuel. While such expenses are important in day-to-day life, they are small parts of families’ much larger economic security challenges. Expenses such as housing, transportation and child care receive less attention, but are much larger pieces of the economic security puzzle, and can be greatly influenced by policy.”

Here, the authors put forth a rather bold contention, as they turn on its head the paradigmatic metric utilized by economists to measure adequate wages, the Consumer Price Index, which considers some of the former, more “traditional” tables—food and fuel—to a much greater extent.   Perhaps equally innovative, the authors further posit that “Not all families require homeownership…[though] such savings can contribute to long-term and intergenerational economic security, however, when investments are careful and savers plan for the long term.” By deflating the value of homeownership while making sure to mention it’s virtues, the authors, in a sense, take a swipe at a bipartisan generation of policymakers that abetted the crisis.

Substantively speaking, I’d guess that to many, the study’s results are equally eye-opening.  The Times reports that “a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year,” while a “a single worker with two young children needs an annual income of $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to attain economic stability.”  My cursory research indicates that this figure exceeds the median family income in the Unites States.

The study’s econometrics are advances, no doubt, but they convey a truth that many other commentators—from the activist Barbara Ehrenreich to the former Labor Secretary Robert Reich—have articulated for far too long (and that policymakers have, in turn, stubbornly ignored): that wages have not kept up with inflation over the last several decades, forcing far too many Americans to borrow more than they can afford to.  So while pundits and the administration alike hail the new job data, make sure to consider the human aspect behind these statistics, which certainly may not be as peachy.

Baltimore’s Vacants to Value Summit

Mayor Rawlings-Blake announcing her “Vacants to Value” plan to curb blight (Image Source:

by Millie Hrdina

I was among 600 plus, who attended Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Summit on Vacants to VALUE (V2V): Addressing the Challenge – Breaking New Ground. Because of the overflow crowd, it was relocated to the Baltimore Convention Center.

Breakfast with the Mayor was followed by a full day of break-out sessions, lunch with a keynote speaker, and a networking reception with the Mayor. Nuts and Bolts of V2V introduced the leadership team of Baltimore Housing, outlined the strategies, partners and goals of the mayor’s new initiative to address the impact of blight in our communities. The current vacant housing situation, it was explained, was 50 years in the making. There are about 30K vacancies. Of which 14K are lots and 16K houses. The city owns about ¼ and the other ¾ are privately owned. The challenge is that for 2/3 of them there is no market.  To meet this challenge, a six point strategy plan was introduced.

My day went like this: Promoting Stronger Neighborhoods Through Code Enforcement described one of the strategies being employed by the City. CHIP (Computerized Housing Inspection Process) is being reorganized from 74 to 64 districts and a new approach with more active observation of vacancies is being implemented along with other tactical code informant items.

The Working Power Lunch included Allan Mallach’s informative Keynote: V2V in a National Context. He emphasized that any strategy must be sensitive to market reality and encouraged finding the sweet spot of the market, focus on risk vs potential, maximize neighborhood market impact of every public dollar and identify creative non-development uses for heavily disinvested areas.

The panel of speakers at Suggestion Box: Dollar Houses and Other Ideas made clear that tax cuts and dollar houses were not in the plan. One panelist stressed location, location, location – meaning that rehab would not work in depressed areas and Mr. Mallach outlined what to look for from the city: 1. reasonable taxes, 2. Quality services, 3. Quality infrastructure and environment, and 4. addressing and moving forward on issues and problems. In the second afternoon session – It Doesn’t Have to be Housing: Open Spaces and Adaptive Reuse, Beth Strommen, Office of Sustainability, talked about the recent census numbers. Planning should be focused on what Baltimore is! It is a city with a population of 621,000 and should not worry about returning to the all time high of ~850,000. She explained the concept of “food deserts” and outlined Baltimore’s sustainable program hope to change food policies. Other panelist addressed open green spaces, adopt-a-lot agreements and Main Street needing steroids.

I’ll admit my heart was at the second session. Not only do I feel it is potentially the easiest means to handling a large segment of Baltimore’s blight but quite possibly the cheaper of all the opportunities which exist to us as a community. There is a great deal of grant monies available to assist the partners in the cost. To me it clearly belongs high on the list of options in a 10 year plan for Baltimore. It develops a broader scope of utility and creates more community pride than most of the others.

It appeared to me, as well as other attendee that I have since spoken with, that the large majority of the audience was developers. I hope that as the city goes forward with developing a 10 year plan it continues this conversation and broadens the scope of community partners inviting all walks of citizens to step up and double their efforts to revitalize Baltimore shifting vacants to value.  Click here for Mayor Stephanie Rawling-Blake’s V@V web site.

Is CRA To Blame?

One theme that has come up in the election is blaming the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) for the current financial situation. CRA came out of Congress in the ‘70s, and there were good, valid reasons to put pressure on banks to lend in areas where they weren’t lending. In the ‘80s Congress gave the law some by creating a rating system to evaluate how banks were doing on their CRA, and then banks had to take it seriously. They worked at getting outstanding ratings, and that was a good thing for a lot of neighborhoods that hadn’t seen private investment in years. But here’s the key thing: no one in the community development movement ever asked a banker to make a bad loan. Blaming CRA for the current housing crisis is really a crock of b.s.

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