Community-building is a never-ending concept.
The other day, I was walking my dog through the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. I crossed through German Park, our community playground, and found a father pushing his baby on the infant swings. I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. “I built those swings,” I said. “Really?” “Well, not by myself, but I was part of the ‘swings’ team.”
It’s been nearly eight years since my wife, Miriam, and a neighbor co-chaired the KaBoom playground build in our neighborhood. Recently, the city of Baltimore, in collaboration with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., completed Phase I of major capital improvements to the park. Phase II, an additional $180,000 for lighting upgrades, new exercise equipment and landscaping, is just around the corner.
So this seems like a good moment to reflect on the moments leading up to and since the playground build and the many ways it has helped transform the core of Reservoir Hill.
Miriam and I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 2010 with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and soon became aware there was no clean/safe play space in our neighborhood. In fact, our first act of advocacy was to help get the crossing signal fixed at Linden Avenue and Lake Drive so that we could access the playground in Druid Hill Park.
But that was a good 20-minute walk, so Miriam began to explore possibilities in Reservoir Hill. As it turned out, many parents in the neighborhood were frustrated by the lack of play space for their children.
With an initial seed grant from Zuckerman-Spaeder and funding from the Ravens, RHIC was able to partner with KaBoom to bring out over 300 volunteers for a build-day. Hundreds of neighbors — including over two dozen Beth Am congregants — showed up on June 16, 2011, for a barn-raising-style massive undertaking. It was a beautiful and inspiring day! By June 20, we had our grand opening, and kids (including my own) were climbing up and sliding down the equipment. From that day to today, the playground is regularly used and has also spurred everything from additional greening efforts in the neighborhood’s core to renovation of numerous vacant row-homes nearby.
One of the things you learn doing neighborhood development work is that building something is easier than maintaining it. The community relied on volunteers to fix equipment if it broke, clean occasional graffiti off the plastic, water the grass and butterfly garden, and pick up trash. It took well over a year to get permanent garbage cans, which meant kids who bought candy bars from the corner store had nowhere to throw the wrappers.
Then, even with trash cans installed, there was the challenge of getting the trash removed! You see, KaBoom could only operate on land that was not managed by the Department of Rec and Parks, but DPW didn’t have trash pickup scheduled on property owned by Baltimore Housing.
Why the Housing? Our German Park renaissance took place on the graveyard of an earlier and long-neglected playground. A neighbor once showed off the scars on her knees from numerous trips down the erstwhile metal slide onto the concrete surface below. But before it was a 1960s era playground, it had been an enormous garage built to house fancy carriages for the (mostly Jewish) occupants of high-rise condominiums overlooking Druid Hill Park.
It took years of advocacy by neighborhood champions to bring our new German Park under the Rec and Parks umbrella. Part of the motivation was to dampen the allure for drug dealers who would occasionally sell their product too near the children. Community members and young families “love bombed” the park, holding story-time gatherings and pushing dealers away. But sightlines were still challenging for police enforcement and overall safety.
Which brings us to this moment. Within months, final renovations of German Park will be complete and the many hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill will continue to enjoy this community asset.
Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not your task to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). The work of building a community – any community – is never complete, but it sure it is fulfilling when it takes a great leap forward!
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The Urban Rabbi. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.