Dennis Livingston, activist and artist, dies

Dennis Livingston, an urban activist who called for jobs creation and a clean environment and who was a pioneer in the Station North Arts District near Green Mount Cemetery, died of cancer Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice Care. He was 72 and lived on Guilford Avenue.

"There were those who came out of the 1960s who lost their vision for social change, but Dennis was not one of them," said Joseph McNeely, director of the Central Baltimore Partnership. "He just stayed there and said we can do better. He kept finding new places in Baltimore to insert his vision."

Born in Chicago and raised on Long Island, N.Y., he attended Washington College and received a bachelor's degree and master of fine arts degree from Ohio University in Athens. Friends praised his woodcuts of Baltimore as well as his pen and ink sketches. He also headed a business, Social Graphic Co., where he designed and published books and manuals.

He was active with the Black Panthers in the 1960s in Washington and with Abbie Hoffman in the Yippie movement.

Friends said Mr. Livingston was a highly skilled carpenter. After moving to Baltimore nearly 40 years ago, he founded South Baltimore Woodworkers, a contracting business. He renovated homes in Federal Hill and around Patterson Park. He also helped build the first Pride of Baltimore.

"Dennis worked without fanfare and was one of the most principled persons I have ever met," said a friend, Michael Seipp, who lives in Lauraville. "He had a credo. He believed in democracy and for the guy on the bottom. He believed strongly that everyone should have the opportunity to lead a quality life."

He formed the Baltimore Jobs in Energy Project to train low-income residents to get jobs in weatherization, energy conservation and, in later years, lead-paint abatement.

"He was always happiest wearing a tool belt or designing a graphic presentation of complex ideas," said Ron Halbright, a co-worker at Jobs in Energy. "Dennis was a unique combination of community, environmental and labor visionary, hands-on master carpenter and trainer and day-to-day neighborhood activist."

In the 1980s, Mr. Livingston was also a vice president of South Baltimore's Coalition of Peninsula Organizations and backed a plan to build affordable co-operative housing along Riverside Avenue.

"He believed, early on, we can rebuild our economy by retrofitting buildings to save energy," said a friend, Tom Chalkley, a cartoonist and social organizer. "He lived an unbelievable full life. He … wasn't afraid of anybody."

Friends said Mr. Livingston observed that Baltimore artists were renting unfinished loft studios in old industrial buildings near Pennsylvania Station. About 15 years ago, he and others spent $200,000 for a rundown former division of the Crown Cork and Seal Co. at Guilford Avenue and Federal Street. They called the structure the Cork Factory. He was a leader of its conversion into apartments.

Mr. Livingston also became an advocate for low-income residents living in the Greenmount West neighborhood adjacent to his home.

"One way is to get rid of the poverty," he told a City Paper reporter in 2003. "The other is to get rid of the people."

Friends said that he constantly reminded city officials of the importance of keeping housing affordable and livable for the residents there.

"When Dennis believed in something, he went all the way," said a friend, Mylo Celsy, director of the Baltimore Trades Guild.

Mr. Livingston has been a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners since 1972. He had served on the boards of directors of the Loading Dock, Baltimore Employment Network, Maryland Citizen Action, Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore and South Baltimore Home Maintenance Program.

"Dennis brought incredible energy, joy and creativity to anything he did, whether it was politics, art or just family dinners. He turned the chore of wrapping Christmas presents into an opportunity to be creative. … On Christmas morning, it looked like a sculpture garden under our tree," said his stepdaughter, Timi Gerson of Washington.

Plans for services are incomplete.

In addition to his stepdaughter, survivors include his life partner of 23 years, Carol Higgs, also an artist; a brother, Craig Livingston of New York City; a stepson, Shawn Frick of Mount Airy; another stepdaughter, Bonnie Cannon of Seattle; and six step-grandchildren. His marriage to Sylvia Wallace ended in divorce.