October 20, 2010
On a recent crisp October weekend, Reservoir Hill community members, friends, farmers, and two bus loads of Johns Hopkins undergraduate students gathered at the Whitelock Community Farm for a modern barn raising. The various volunteer groups, totaling close to 50 people, built an inexpensive but practical hoop house using a clear plastic roof and a PVC-pipe spine to extend the newly established farm’s growing season. Construction of the 20 foot by 30 foot hoop house was managed by Thor Nelson, an architect/planner who lives a block from the farm site, and paid for by a grant from Parks and People. The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) chipped in Federal Stimulus money to fund materials for a shed and farm stand on the property, and coordinated the volunteer support from Johns Hopkins.
The Whitelock Community Farm was founded in March 2010, when community members from the postage stamp sized Whitelock Community Garden decided to spread their roots and squat in the neighboring abandoned lot. Teddy Krolik of the RHIC said he “hopes the lot will accomplish two objectives: first, demonstrate that healthy food is possible even in urban food deserts; and second, re-establish Whitelock St. as a space where community members can come to interact and form relationships over a common project.” Gardening in vacant lots in Baltimore is nearly a city pastime. Miriam Avins, founder of Baltimore Green Space, writes in the Audacious Ideas blog about the benefits of reclaiming land:
“Community-managed open spaces benefit their neighborhoods and the entire city in many ways—social benefits such as a place for neighbors to meet each other and work together, reducing or eliminating dumping and crime, and access to a bit of nature in the city; health benefits such as exercise and fresh produce; and environmental benefits such as a place for migratory birds to rest, and a place for stormwater to sink into the soil rather than wash pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. There’s no doubt that the people who tend community open spaces enrich the life of their neighborhoods.”
Artist and Reservoir Hill resident Elisa Lane wants to see the Whitelock Community Farm grow and sell produce to the neighborhood and donate to the Corpus Christi soup kitchen on 703 Whitelock St. Lane dreams of opening a weekly farmers market stand in the farm next year, citing as her motivation the limited food options in the neighborhood (i.e. food desert) and desire to see this empty space better utilized.
The space where the farm resides, at the corner of Whitelock St. and Brookfield Ave., is steeped in Baltimore history. In the 19th century, where Whitelock St. and the eponymous garden and community farm now sit, the site was a path that tenant farmers used to traverse the property of Robert Whitelock. Reservoir Hill slowly turned from summer estates for Baltimore elites to a historically Jewish neighborhood in the 1930s and later home to public housing, according to Eileen Murphy of City Paper in a 2001 feature called “City on a Hill.”
When collecting background for the story, I was surprised to hear that the land under the farm is zoned commercial. All around me were residential apartment buildings and row houses. The garden sits in the footprint of a pharmacy, as described by a Reservoir Hill local, in a full block of retail. A map of the farm shows where a block of commercial once stood.
In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Reservoir Hill neighborhood and the commercial center of Whitelock St. was embroiled in violence. Urban renewal projects around Whitelock St. in the 1970s and 1980s could not fight back what the Baltimore Sun called “one of the city’s busiest drug markets” as reported by Murphy of City Paper. Sixteen years ago, Baltimore demolished the commercial district on Whitelock St. between Linden and Brookfield Avenues to create clear lines of sight to up-end drug activity, says current resident Doron Kutnick.
The afternoon of the hoop house construction injected a sense of purpose for the empty plot of land. This farm, the neighboring community garden, busy basketball courts, and the recent youth boxing matches held in a make-shift ring across the street, show that residents are already reclaiming these formerly empty spaces and integrate them back into the fabric of the neighborhood.
– Dave Love