When Gerrie Okwesa moved to Reservoir Hill five years ago, she had no intention of staying long. Vacant rowhouses marred the block, and a fence obstructed one end of the street where she lived — put there by police, she was told, to disrupt the drug trafficking that plagued the neighborhood.
But the place grew on the teacher from Washington, and she's put down roots, literally. With help from nonprofit groups and the city, she and her neighbors have greened up the 700 block of Newington Ave., replacing dead and dying trees, planting flowers around them and even turning a trash-strewn vacant lot into a lush neighborhood garden brimming with crape myrtles, hibiscus, hydrangeas and daylilies.
"I really love opening my door and seeing trees and flowers and green stuff," she said.
Neighborhoods all over Baltimore are greening themselves, reflecting the city's campaign to improve urban life by making the landscape cleaner and greener. But Reservoir Hill, north of downtown, has plunged into it with an almost unmatched passion and organization, promoting community gardening on vacant lots, tree planting and healthy eating and even launching a farm on Whitelock Street, where a once-thriving business district deteriorated into an open-air drug market and eventually was demolished.
Now the products being peddled there include carrots, eggplant, scallions and swiss chard. The Whitelock Community Farm sells its harvest from a corner stand on Fridays and Saturdays.
Beautifying with greenery has long been a community cause, according to Rick Gwynallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. The umbrella neighborhood group launched its first greening initiative in 2004 and drew up a "green master plan" in 2007.
In recent years, residents have expanded their efforts to promote household energy savings, increase the tree canopy, expand recycling and convert vacant lots to parks or other community space. Environmental programs also have been integrated into the neighborhood school, John Eager Howard Elementary, and the city-run recreation center.
"A lot of communities could really do some of those things, but [Reservoir Hill residents have] really stuck with it over six or seven years now, before everybody else was doing it," said Cheryl Casciani, chair of the city's sustainability commission and an executive with the Baltimore Community Foundation.
Reservoir Hill has been particularly effective at building partnerships, said Alice Kennedy, sustainability coordinator in the city planning office, bringing residents, schools, nonprofits, businesses and communities of faith like Beth Am Synagogue together on its endeavors. The improvement council also boasts a rare luxury for neighborhood groups — a staff, including one person dedicated to working on environmental projects.
But Teddy Krolik, the council's 25-year-old environmental program director, said the residents are the driving force behind the greening campaign. For him, what's being done isn't as important as the process of engaging neighbors in the community, historically a Jewish enclave that became overwhelmingly African-American decades ago.
A few weeks ago, for instance, residents turned out in droves to help build a new playground and butterfly garden in German Park, also on Whitelock Street, which had been largely a concrete wasteland.
"You're getting people out of their houses really, I think, reaching common grounds when it is so easy in this kind of diverse neighborhood to fall into all sorts of divisions," said Krolik. "These kinds of projects find people working together who wouldn't often have that chance.
Erin Reilly said she's earned the nickname the "energy lady" for her missionary work going door to door talking with residents about how they can lower their utility bills by changing light bulbs, insulating pipes, caulking windows and turning the heat down when they're away. She's done much more herself, painting her roof a heat-reflecting white and having a solar hot-water heater and photovoltaic panels installed.
"They were all about saving money, everybody is," said Reilly, 41, a webmaster at Maryland General Hospital. "But they were really interested in the green aspect of it. It went across economic and educational levels."
The Whitelock Community Farm was launched by 10 residents looking to do something with the large vacant lot at Whitelock and Brookfield Avenue.
Inspired by a community garden operating just down the block, they began "guerrilla gardening" the city-owned land last year, as Elisa Lane, the farm manager, put it. They cleared grass and debris from the lot and worked topsoil and manure into the ground before planting corn, melons and a handful of other vegetables. In the fall, they erected a "hoop house" to keep growing through the winter.
This year, legitimized with a five-year "right of entry" agreement with the city, the farm is producing 24 different vegetables and some herbs on a third of an acre. It's filling a need in one of the city's "food deserts," with just one supermarket on the fringe of the community and a couple of corner stores.
"I think it's important for people to learn how to grow their own food and also to be environmental stewards," said Lane, 31, who moved here two years ago with her husband from Philadelphia. She works part time at a stained-glass and metal sculpture studio in Hampden, but puts another 25 hours in on the farm. The proceeds from the produce sales are plowed back into the farm, she said, though the members do split any leftovers.
Besides selling produce to residents and passersby, the farm offers a barter arrangement, where people can work on weeding, seeding and watering in return for a share of the harvest. Lane said about 10 people have signed on under those terms.
The twice-weekly markets draw two or three dozen customers each, but many others just come by to browse or talk with their neighbors. Since the stores were demolished, the neighborhood has lacked a central gathering place, a role Lane and others say the farm now seems to be playing.
"I'm glad it's there," said Georgia Winder, 75, who's lived in Reservoir Hill since 1978. "It's better having the garden than empty space."
Greening enthusiasm has picked up at the neighboring community garden as well. Rebecca Feldberg, its manager, said she now has a waiting list for one of the 30 small plots, where only about a fourth of them were being worked when she took over the operation four years ago.
Like the farm, the garden draws like-minded residents together. One evening last week, Ashe Smith, 26, shared some of the herbs he was growing with Cathy Maulsby, 35, a researcher at Hopkins who needed some thyme to spice her quiche dinner.
"Without this, I wouldn't have met anybody in this neighborhood," said Smith, an educator for Parks & People Foundation.
Paul Chalmus, a mailman, checked in one day after work to water his squash, beets, spinach and tomatoes. A veteran flower gardener, it's his first attempt at raising vegetables.
"I just want to grow my own thing," he explained, "and I'm tired of markets putting their chemicals and all that kind of stuff. I want to see if I can get around some of that."
In a community still struggling with poverty, crime and abandonment, advocates say that greening is more than just a feel-good or cosmetic facelift. And support for it isn't limited to the younger white residents who've moved recently into the community.
"I think black folks want to be as green as anybody else, if they can afford to," said Carl Cleary, neighborhood development director for the council.
"It enhances a better life for all people," said Chartruse Robinson, president of the council and a resident since 1980. "The more activity that people see, the more energy we are engaged with."
Indeed, Okwesa said that since she and her neighbors started beautifying their block, all but one of the houses that once stood vacant have been occupied, by renters or buyers. Now they're extending their greening efforts to adjoining blocks. And she was tickled last week to learn that her block had been chosen as a stop on the Parks & People Foundation's Charm City Garden Tour next month.
"When I first got here, Newington was one big mess," Okwesa said, "and we've sort of put ourselves back on the map."
An earlier version misspelled Erin Reilly and Chartruse Robinson's names. The Sun regrets the error.