Reaping What We Sow:
Community Art and Greening in Inner City Baltimore

It was a late afternoon in October when the warm sun pours down like honey, softening everything and massaging Baltimore’s achy shoulders. I was walking with a group of middle school youth from Kids on the Hill to see the new community garden on Lennox. We were going to meet Frank Patinella, the energetic community organizer of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council who had brought many people and organizations together to create a beautiful garden out of the rubble of abandoned houses. Over a long time they’d worked to plan and organize themselves, contact the owners, coordinate with the City, remove the garbage, build raised flower and vegetable beds, install water pumps, erect a fence, haul in good soil, and create stone paths and a small picnic area at one end.

It took a village to raise that garden! A lot of the initial heavy work of removing concrete and digging into the earth was undertaken by groups from the First Prayer Recovery House on Lennox St. Teens from the City's Youthworks program helped build the stone paths. Equipment and plants were donated by the Parks and People Foundation, along with the expertise of staff Amanda Cunningham. Larry Kloze and the Master Gardeners and Dennis Bishop of the Maryland Cooperative Extension helped plan and dig the first year. Funding came from the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative and the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. Residents from the surrounding area, organized through Bolton-Park Neighbors, Inc., donated their time and resources. Hundreds of hours later, many organizations and individuals had assisted Frank and the gardeners to turn a mere idea into a reality. The project was a labor of sweat equity, perseverance and love that brought people together and strengthened neighborhood relationships.

Kids on the Hill Director Rebecca Yenawine had asked if I’d work with the youth to create their contribution to the garden -- mosaic stepping stones to adorn the paths. Kids on the Hill has worked for years to build bridges between adults and youth in Reservoir Hill, and to enable youth’s artistic talents and energies to shine as they learn how to affect positive change in their world. Our walk today was to learn about the garden and to sketch some designs for the mosaics. The kids were in high spirits, rowdy and full of energy after a day in school.

Our walk to the garden – a trajectory that many of the youth walk every day -- took us through the best and the worst facing many City neighborhoods. Kids were playing everywhere on bicycles and on foot; they spilled from the doors of the John Eager Howard Rec Center, basketballs in hand. Neighbors chatted on front steps; garbage spewed from vacant houses while next door, houses were boarded with colorful paintings, testimony to another Kids on the Hill project. In the middle of the street two blocks from the garden, a group of concerned adults discussed the charred remains of a giant four-story house, gutted by fire and caving in, that had literally tumbled into the street the day before. Despite its many problems, Reservoir Hill is clearly a vibrant neighborhood, unafraid of rolling up its sleeves and working hard to change things.

Frank met us at the garden gate, and we walked in past tall blowsy flowers of cosmos and zinnia, a last lone tomato on the vine, the deep purple of a few eggplants and a crimson sweet bell pepper hanging fat and low to the ground. The evidence of summer’s bounty was unmistakable, and so was the care that countless hands had invested in the space. For all their pent up energy, the youth listened intently as Frank told the history of the garden. When he finished, I asked them to wander around with their sketchbooks and pencils and to draw designs for their stepping stones. My hidden motive was to have them notice and appreciate the space as they sketched.

As I walked among the kids, giving suggestions and helping them focus, I came upon Bianca who looked frustrated and was buzzing like a bee. “I can’t find anything to draw,” she said huffily, glaring at me. I took a calculated risk on the seduction of the garden and replied, “You could try just finding a color that you really like and work from there.” I glanced around quickly. “Hey, check that out – isn’t that a wild color?” I pointed behind her to a small bush studded with tiny screaming red hot peppers (thank you mother nature!). Bianca turned her gaze to the bush and suddenly, in an instant she was hooked. I could see her eyes lock in, feel her noticing something outside of herself for the first time, studying it with the same intensity of the earlier glare. Bingo. I was no longer needed and would be in the way if I stayed.
I glanced at the other youth; they’d settled into sketching. Inspired by Bianca’s focus, I took a deep breath and drank in the moment, the sun on my face, a symphony of the year’s last crickets in the background. As in my own city garden plot, there are singular moments when nature tugs us powerfully away from the surface – the horns and the traffic, the sirens and helicopters overhead. The sun can bake the perfume of earth and flowers clear out of the ground and wrap it around us like an enchantment. I thanked every hand that had touched this soil. Then, breaking the momentary spell, I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to head back.

I began rounding up the youth, then circled back to Bianca. I could see from afar that something important was happening. Her head was bent to the page and she was drawing, deep in concentration. “Find something to draw after all?” I asked smiling. The face she turned to meet my gaze was a beautiful sight to behold. Her smile was broader than a sunflower, her eyes wide and dreamy. She radiated calm and peace rare for her age. “Oh, Miss Cinder”, she whispered, “Oh! I’ve just been sittin’ here, and it’s like all the world’s been comin’ to me!” “Really?” I asked, hoping she’d say more. “Oh, yeah,” she said with the lightest of breath, “I could hear the wind blowin’ and all the flowers were talkin’ in the wind. They were sayin’ ‘swish, swoosh, swish, swoosh’…” She proudly showed me her sketches, and then we had to leave.

As we brought up the end of the line of kids walking back, Bianca remained deeply happy. She told me of her memories of walking around the reservoir with her mother and siblings. She remembered her mother teaching her to make a wish before she blew the seeds off a dandelion. Clearly, Bianca had been moved by her brief sojourn in the garden, and I was reminded of the power of the earth to nurture us, and of art to inspire us -- even in the midst of concrete and noise. As a community artist, these are the moments I live for.

Leaving the neighborhood that evening, I marveled at how, like Bianca, we all blossom with nurturing. Kids -- like gardens -- need very basic things to thrive rather than merely survive. They need the warm, intense, caring sun of many adults in their lives – from their own parents or guardians to Kids on the Hill staff, from “Mr. Frank” to Miss Cookie and Mr. Harrison, the staff at the Rec Center, and the group standing in the street discussing how to get that house stabilized. Kids need the rain of many rich experiences and opportunities that help them glimpse and experience who they are, what they are good at, and who they might become.

Fundamentally, kids need the rich soil of place -- a safe, strong neighborhood, full of possibilities that hold keys to their future, and that can help them sprout right out of the ground. They need communities maintained with the same determination that Frank and his band of gardeners mustered to create that garden from absolutely nothing; the same determination of Kids on the Hill as they work with youth year after year after year. I will never forget that look on Bianca’s face, nor all that it took to set the stage for that to happen. If kids never have a chance to feel like all the world is coming to them, how can they ever reach out to grasp it?

© Cinder Hypki, 2005