CHAI: Making A Stand in Upper Park Heights Part 4

Posted on January 25th, 2017 by

Article by Simone Ellin. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part IV: A Unique Neighborhood

Missed parts 1 – 3? Start here.

Collaboration, productive partnerships, successful fundraising, and the commitment of The Associated have all undoubtedly contributed to CHAI’s success in maintaining a Jewish presence in Upper Park Heights. Yet certain characteristics unique to the neighborhood serve to solidify this diverse community. As Gelula and Rabbi Oberstein point out, a similar neighborhood stabilization program failed to sustain a diverse community in Randallstown, an historically Jewish enclave in Baltimore County which attracted many African Americans starting in the 1960s. “The entire Randallstown Jewish community ended in forty years between 1960 and 2000. It was just gone,” Oberstein asserts. “You see, when people develop the perception that a neighborhood is changing, they assume that the public schools are no longer good, and they run away.” The Orthodox don’t use the public schools, “so the quality of neighborhood public schools doesn’t matter to them.”

Yet, the quality of neighborhood schools matters to CHAI. In fact, in the past two years, CHAI and Cross Country Elementary and Middle School were awarded a School Community Partnership Grant to carry out a school-wide Technology Implementation Program. This is in addition to the money that was raised (through the slots legislation) for Northwestern High School. “Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in quality education,” says Gelula. “Our neighborhood public schools are important community members and they need to be part of our overall plan. And just because there aren’t Jewish kids in those schools today, doesn’t mean that as they improve, there won’t be in the future.”

CHAI works to improve neighborhood schools. "Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in education" - Ken Gelula. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

CHAI works to improve neighborhood schools. “Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in education” – Ken Gelula. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Whether Jewish children will someday populate the neighborhood schools alongside their African American neighbors remains to be seen. For the time being, the two communities live side by side with limited contact. “We are fortunate to have fine neighborhood associations, and African Americans and Jews work together,” says Rabbi Oberstein. But although Orthodox Jews and blacks share their neighborhood without overt conflict and cooperate in improvement efforts, no one claims that the two communities are closely knit. Gelula admits that the Orthodox live in Upper Park Heights in spite of, and not because of, its diverse population.

Meanwhile, says Sandy Johnson, “I don’t think the average African American who lives here, really ‘gets’ the Orthodox community. We are two communities living side by side, but I don’t think African Americans really understand the ways of Orthodox Jews.” However, close relationships between neighbors of these diverse backgrounds are not unheard of, Johnson adds. “I believe there have been relationships between neighbors. They help one another, but there is still a distance–though not an unfriendly distance. We’re partners who do very well with one another for the most part.”

For Johnson, integrating a growing Hispanic population presents a greater challenge to the neighborhood than black/Jewish relations. “Landlords were renting two-room apartments and five men would be living there. There is tremendous overcrowding.” This has led to overflowing trash bags in the alleys and other issues. “So CHAI applied for a grant, and we got a Spanish-speaking lady to help us organize the homeowners on Surrey Drive,” where many Hispanics live. Johnson adds that although the grant helped temporarily, problems have continued. “I feel like we spend 80 percent of our time dealing with 20 percent of the neighborhood.”

Gelula notes that 20 percent of the children at Fallstaff Elementary/Middle School “are new immigrant children, most of whom are Hispanic.” The area’s increased diversity can be seen in local businesses as well. “If you walk into stores in the neighborhood, you will find that many of the people working there are Latino. There’s a kosher meat store called Shlomo’s. It’s owned by an Iranian Jew. He has his landsmen there, and they all speak Farsi, and then there are these Hispanic guys who also work there and they speak Spanish. So the Iranian guys are learning to speak Spanish, while the Hispanic guys are learning to speak Farsi so they can all work together.”

Celebrating the opening of the Fallstaff School-Community Playground. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Celebrating the opening of the Fallstaff School-Community Playground. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The community’s response to the changes on Surrey were two-fold. City housing inspectors were brought in to observe illegal occupancy situations, and once misuses could be confirmed, owners were served with fines. CHAI also secured a grant from the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative that provided funds to hire a bilingual community worker to work with the neighborhood’s growing Latino population, providing resources and educating the new arrivals about their new country. “She was terrific,” says Gelula. “But the grant ran out and she moved out of the state. Unfortunately, there was no money to continue to fund the position,” he laments.

Gelula notes that CHAI has helped Latino families purchase homes in the neighborhood. The Baltimore Jewish Council has also sponsored dialogues between the Jewish and Hispanic communities. While he acknowledges there have been problems, Gelula does not believe that Jews take issue with the Hispanic presence in Park Heights. “It’s a classic American melting pot story that plays out everywhere in good and bad ways,” he remarks. “Are there groups of Latino guys sitting outside those houses drinking beer and playing loud music – yes – some.” But “for the most part, these are hard working people trying to get an economic foothold so they can create a better life for their kids.”

Meanwhile, the Orthodox community continues to thrive alongside its black and Hispanic neighbors. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re all walking down the streets of Park Heights singing Kumbaya,” says Gelula. “But we get along.” In fact, the popularity of new housing developments such as Bancroft Village, a Park Heights townhouse community built specifically with the needs of large Orthodox families in mind, suggests that the Jewish community is actually growing. Bucking past trends in Jewish migration—and with the support and stabilization efforts of CHAI—a significant number of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish families will likely make their homes in Upper Park Heights for many years to come.

~The End~

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CHAI: Making A Stand in Upper Park Heights Part 3

Posted on January 23rd, 2017 by

Article by Simone Ellin. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part III: Attention to Detail

Missed parts 1 & 2? Start here.

Baltimore Delegate Sandy Rosenberg served on the CHAI board when it was dedicated to senior housing. When The Associated began studying models of community stabilization, Rosenberg was active with the Baltimore Jewish Council, an Associated agency deeply involved with the project. “Associated leaders made a site visit to Cleveland to see what the Jewish Federation there was doing about community stabilization since they already had a program underway there. That was really when CHAI as it is known today began,” Rosenberg explains. “The Associated said, ‘We’re going to invest in this neighborhood.’ That led to the JCC’s restoration, for instance. Without CHAI, Har Sinai (a Reform synagogue then in the neighborhood) wouldn’t have sold to Rambam (an Orthodox day school). Before CHAI, synagogues that moved out of their buildings sold to churches.”

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Rosenberg attributes some of CHAI’s success to its attention to detail. “Little things can be both pluses and minuses to neighborhoods, and making those minor changes leads to bigger things, and out of that, enthusiasm grows.” Under CHAI’s auspices, the presidents of the area’s five neighborhood associations (the Northwest Communities Presidents Forum) met on a regular basis, Rosenberg says. “That got people working together and looking out for their common interests. As an elected official, these meetings have helped me–they have given me an opportunity to meet with all of these presidents.”

Rosenberg cites new state legislation around slot machines as one recent benefit. “Because of the participation of NW Presidents, a percentage of the money from Pimlico’s slot machines will be distributed to the five neighborhoods around Pimlico. We brought this idea to the presidents and they helped to refine it. Earnings from slots over the next fifteen years are expected to be $45 million. The neighborhoods around the racetrack will receive some of those proceeds for community development.” In fact, in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to neighborhood residents and stakeholders, Rosenberg and his colleagues convinced the state to provide $75,000 up front. This sum was matched by the Baltimore City School System and the $150,000 was used to renovate the running track at Northwest High School.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Rosenberg believes that The Associated’s decision to invest in Upper Park Heights is important not only to the Jewish community but also for Baltimore and the entire Baltimore metropolitan area. “The city and the suburbs have a mutually dependent relationship,” he says. “People may think they are separate but suburbs are only as strong as the urban centers they surround.”

CHAI has also created collaborative relationships with Baltimore City, neighborhood schools, community task forces, the business community, and especially, the African American community. Sandy Johnson, an African American woman who has lived in Fallstaff for thirty-two years, first became aware of CHAI around ten years ago through her involvement with the Fallstaff Improvement Board (currently she serves as the Board’s president). “I went to a few meetings,” she recalls, “and saw that CHAI was trying to bring the Northwest neighborhoods together. I believe that had it not been for CHAI, we probably would not have had cohesive relationships with the four other neighborhoods.”

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Johnson also credits CHAI with shepherding the NW Presidents Forum through the process of becoming one of only six Baltimore City community organizations to obtain Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP) designation in 2003 through then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s office. The purpose of SNAP is to create comprehensive plans that neighborhoods can use to implement positive changes. After receiving the designation, the group’s steering committee hosted a town meeting open to neighborhood residents and stakeholders to encourage their involvement in the planning process. After completion of the first SNAP plan in 2004, neighborhood improvements were implemented in the areas of housing, land use and zoning, open space, recreation and environment, transportation, streetscapes and gateways, education and schools, and public safety and community relations. In 2010, the NW Presidents Forum held a second town hall meeting to update and develop new recommendations for the strategy going forward.

Continue to Part IV: A Unique Neighborhood

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CHAI: Making A Stand in Upper Park Heights Part 2

Posted on January 18th, 2017 by

Article by Simone Ellin. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part II: Coming Together

Missed part 1? Start here.

A lot was riding on maintaining a Jewish presence in the neighborhood. For one thing, The Associated had made an enormous investment in Upper Park Heights. Many synagogues, a Jewish Community Center, and Jewish Family Services were all located there. The cost of moving these institutions and rebuilding them elsewhere would be substantial. In addition, The Associated had made a commitment to remain in Baltimore City, as evidenced by its 1980 decision to build a new headquarters at 101 West Mount Royal Avenue, just north of downtown.

But there was more. “I don’t think I quite realized the depth of feeling about these issues in the Jewish community or the African American community,” says Gelula. “What happened elsewhere in Baltimore City was absolutely devastating–block-busting and white flight–no one wanted that again.” Given the painful history of relations between blacks and Jews in Baltimore, many of the leaders involved in the planning process were dubious. They were concerned that a Jewish-sponsored program would cause resentment and tension between the black and Jewish communities. “As it turned out,” Gelula observes, most of the fears were unfounded. “Actually, many African Americans were pleased that the organized Jewish community was standing up for these neighborhoods. And they realized that some of the proposed neighborhood improvement projects would help African American homeowners as well as their Jewish neighbors.”

Some "Passover Partners" help a neighborhood senior prepare her home for the Passover festival. Photo courtesy of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Some “Passover Partners” help a neighborhood senior prepare her home for the Passover festival. Photo courtesy of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Gelula recalls, “We began operation in the ground floor of the old Beth Jacob Hebrew School building. Initially there were only two employees who had to do everything: events, PR, advertising, homeownership assistance, services to older homeowners, block organizing.” One of CHAI’s first programs after its reorganization was a Sukkah tour designed to bring visitors to the neighborhood. The tour was part of a kick-off to promote the community and to showcase its unique character. At the same time, CHAI organized a homeownership assistance program with loan funds provided by The Associated. Within a year, Gelula hired a community organizer who began to implement block projects targeted to streets that the organization sought to improve and promote. CHAI worked with homeowners on streets like Narcissus, Jonquil, Clover, and Highgate, convincing many households to invest in their homes and streets, primarily in exterior facades and landscaping. CHAI also worked out cooperative relationships with lenders in the area. Later, CHAI organized tours for realtors, reintroducing them to the neighborhood and highlighting the improvements that were transforming the area.

CHAI’s homeowner assistance programs proved popular with both African American and Jewish homeowners. And the block projects had an additional benefit, Gelula notes. “They brought African American and Jewish homeowners together in each other’s homes. Neighbors learned that they had much in common with one another. People relaxed and enjoyed themselves. When a block project was completed, it was not unusual for the owners to feel that the most important product was the success in bringing people together.”

Volunteers from across the community came together to build the Fallstaff School-Community PLayground in 2009. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Volunteers from across the community came together to build the Fallstaff School-Community PLayground in 2009. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Fulfilling its original mission, CHAI paid special attention to the needs of older homeowners through a grant it received from Baltimore City. Recruiting volunteers from within and outside of the community, CHAI created programs for neighborhood seniors including Senior Home Repair and Weatherization Days and the Passover Partners Program, when volunteers go into the homes of Jewish seniors to help them ready their homes for the Passover holiday.

CHAI also formed partnerships with other community organizations in the five Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods that it serves: Fallstaff, Cross Country, and Glen in Upper Park Heights, and Cheswolde and Mount Washington. CHAI introduced community volunteer projects that improved neighborhood conditions while also bringing neighbors of different backgrounds together, such as the Fallstaff playground building project in 2009 and the Western Run stream cleaning day.

Continue to Part III: Attention to Detail

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