Samantha Armacost, 27, grew up a country girl in Hereford.
"There's not even sidewalks where my parents live," said Armacost, nicknamed Sam.
But she was always thrilled when her mother took her on the light rail to Baltimore City to see Orioles games or crafts shows at the Convention Center. She saw possibilities in the city and last year bought a house in Medfield.
When asked if she considers herself a city girl or a country girl now, Armacost said, "I'm a hybrid. I can walk to the grocery store and restaurants. I wish I could have chickens and bees, but my place is too small."
Armacost, a graphic designer and web developer, was one of an estimated 300 registrants and presenters Saturday at the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s sixth annual Neighborhood Institute at the Colonnade Hotel on University Parkway. The institute, a smorgasbord of workshops on topics ranging from community art projects and fundraising to home rehab and code enforcement, was designed to teach participants how to help improve their neighborhoods and schools through community action and interaction.
Armacost was also a symbol of the institute's underlying goal of drawing young people to the city to buy homes. For too many years, Baltimore County was Baltimore City's biggest competitor, and the city was little more than a steppingstone to the county for young families, said keynote speaker Charles Duff, executive director of the non-profit housing developer Jubilee Baltimore.
But that's changing, and in 2010, Baltimore ranked No. 1 in the nation in attracting college grads, followed by Atlanta and Philadelphia, Duff said, citing statistics by the Urban Institute.
Many people in the audience raised their hands when Duff asked how many were college graduates 25 to 34, a prized category of potential home buyers for cities and counties looking to pad their populations and tax bases.
"They're the kind of people who help build your next economy," Duff said. "If you're here, your neighborhoods must be looking pretty good."
Armacost, a graduate of Marietta College in Ohio, led a session called Social Networking With Your Neighbors, on using websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Next Door, the latter a kind of Facebook for neighborhoods. On Next Door, she created a pet directory, where Medfield residents could post photos of their pets after a rash of lost pets in the neighborhood. Eighteen people posted photos, including of two goldfish, Armacost said.
"This is how people my age are interacting with communities," she said.
The art of community-building
At the same time as Armacost's workshop, Sergio Martinez, an architect and artist in the New Greenmount West neighborhood, was extolling community art projects like murals on building facades as another way of fostering neighborhood spirit and involvement.
Martinez is leading an effort, funded with a $10,500 facade improvement grant from the Robert W. Deutsche Foundation, to paint murals on wooden panels of boarded-up doors and windows on 11 abandoned houses.
Efforts are also under way to rehab houses in New Greenmount West, a neighborhood near the Station North Arts and Entertainment District that shows "the scars of abandonment," said Martinez, whose workshop was called Engaging Your Community With Art.
"It's about building up what's around you," he said. "This gift of art, architecture and culture is all around us and defines our neighborhood."
Community art has been a priority of Greater Homewood, which does community-building in 45 neighborhoods in north-central Baltimore. Among the artwork Greater Homewood has sponsored are murals that grace the exterior walls of the Giant supermarket in Waverly, said Greater Homewood Executive Director Karen Stokes.
Other workshops at the Neighborhood Institute included Biking Through Baltimore, Fundraising for Community Change, Choosing Public Schools, Block Captain Training, Code Enforcement Fundamentals, Engaging Volunteers for One-Time Events, and Revitalizing Neighborhoods, which offered information on an array of loans and financial incentives for home buyers in the city.
Institute attendees included City Council President Jack Young, council members Mary Pat Clarke, Carl Stokes and Bill Henry, and Julie Day, deputy commissioner for land resources at Baltimore Housing.
More statistical good news for Baltimore came from the workshop Baltimore By the Numbers. Statistics from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance show a significant drop in crime, teenage birth rates, middle school absenteeism rates and high school dropout rates from 2000 to 2010, said presenter Seema Iyer, associate director and research assistant professor for the Jacob France Institute in the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business.
For the same time period, residential rehab permits were up, as were median home sale prices, median incomes and diversity indicators, a measure of ethnicity, said Iyer, who is a member of the Roland Park Civic League. She said the statistics are higher in many categories for the Greater Homewood coverage area than in other areas of the city.
Old-fashioned block parties
Some of the most effective community-building is the most traditional — organizing community block parties, said Lake Walker residents Kathy Brohawn and Elaine Dietz, co-presenters at a workshop called the Neighborhood Leaders Forum. The two women, who said they have been organizing such parties for 20 years, said they hold a block party each September, with neighbors bringing potluck foods and the Lake Walker Community Association cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. Businesses donate food and services, and a raffle raises more than $1,000, Dietz and Brohawn said.
A neighborhood committee starts planning the block party and recruiting volunteers at least three months before the event, and the committee meets soon after the block party to analyze what went right and wrong, they said.
Common problems include people forgetting their potluck dishes or skipping out with helping to clean up, which is why the committee assigns specific tasks to volunteers, they said.
"People want to have the fun, but they don't necessarily want to stay afterward," Dietz said.
They even make posters and hand out fliers well beforehand, they said.
Last year, they got a $500 donation from the credit union MECU, they said.
One of the most important aspects of the block party is the potluck, not only because it provides more food, but because it gives neighbors something to talk about and bond over.
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"Your rubbing elbows with your neighbors," Dietz said.