RTB’s AmeriCorps member Community Partner Coordinator virtually met with Union Square’s Neighborhood Association president, Bifford Browning, to discuss what makes a neighborhood a community.
The Union Square Association is part of the Southwest Partnership, a coalition of seven neighborhoods and six institutions working together to strengthen Southwest Baltimore.
Rebuilding Together Baltimore is collaborating with the Southwest Partnership by offering vital home repairs to qualified homeowners. Homeownership is a pathway to building generational wealth, and supporting homeowners to maintain a safe and healthy home for generations to come, strengthens neighborhoods, and helps (re) build strong communities.
Biff bought his home from the previous Union Square neighborhood association president 14 years ago. His wife found an ad on craigslist for a newly refurbished house in a neighborhood that, at the time, had vacancies in the double digits. Although he is not a native to Baltimore, after 14 years, he is a local and an advocate for local businesses, local living, and local cooperation. Biff has been actively involved in the Union Square Association since he moved to the neighborhood. He was also the 1st development chair for the Southwest Partnership. Here, he learned that small businesses live and die with neighborhoods, a pattern that helped set in motion his passion for keeping Union Square a vibrant community with local resources. He values cooperation, and as the Union Square Association president, he aims to create opportunities for neighbors to feel connected with a common goal - a safe, healthy, self-sufficient, and unified community.
Union Square shares a historic district with Hollins Market that dates back to the 1830s. This urban center has supported local businesses for generations. Today 52 countries are represented in the neighborhood, and while neighbors share a common geographical home, culturally and linguistically, neighbors are diverse. Although homeownership is high, Union Square is also home to transient young professionals. Due to the neighborhood’s proximity to the train and highway, 80% of residents work outside the city limits. Biff suggests that because of the blending of legacy homeowners, new homeowners, and the flux of renters, Union Square can not be defined - but if it were to be defined, it would be defined by its community engagement. Union Square is a sort of ‘social experiment”, explains Biff, because against these odds, cooperation and engagement are strong.
Neighbors knowing neighbors is the key to building community, says Biff, and the Association takes every opportunity to bring people together and nurture ideas, skills, and improvement efforts. For example, if a neighbor wants to lead a clean-up, build a neighborhood garden, or make neighborhood improvements, the Association will find a way to fund it.
Community building is a daily task and ultimately a change in perception. Biff observes that neighborly interest and concern can be seen as “being nosey” in a society that values individualism. But this perception does not diminish his efforts and trust that an invitation to engage, give input, and be seen, encourages positive behaviors and creates a sense of buy-in and neighborhood pride.
If you live in or near Union Square, you do not have to go far for entertainment. The Union Square association takes pride in helping to organize monthly and annual events. Sunday Sounds in the Park concert series, the Christmas Cookie Tour, Sowebo Landmark 5k, and the Sowebo Arts Festival put Union Square on the map for residents and visitors alike. However, smaller localized, community-organized events bring neighbors together to share ideas, goals, and opportunities to work together towards a more unified and inclusive neighborhood. Soup Socials, Bloom Your Block flower competitions, Corks and Conversations, plant, seed, and mulch giveaways help engage neighbors and create community. The annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a symbol of unity rather than religion, explains Biff, is a time when neighbors come together to celebrate accomplishments and commemorate neighbors who have passed.
Today the vacancy rate is 4%. An improvement, however, the remaining vacancy is an ongoing challenge for the neighborhood. Vacant property fragments city blocks and brings illegal activity. The vacancies can also bring fire, threatening nearby homes and residents. A situation Union Square has experienced multiple times this past year alone.
Making blocks whole again is a priority, and advocating for improvements to traffic patterns, so the streets are safe for pedestrians and school children. Last year, the neighborhood lost an 8-year-old child to a speeding car, which was devastating for the family and traumatic for the community. Cooperation from the city to improve traffic patterns has been slow. The neighborhood recently came together to put up stop signs, which the city has yet to take down, even though the request was denied. Although more city support is desired, the Union Square Association supports neighbors to make the changes they can, regardless of city resources.
The Union Square Association meetings are well attended, and as a leader, Biff focuses on spreading the good news and making sure everyone feels heard. However, it takes commitment, strong support, and many voices to stop further deterioration of an area that has been historically destabilized. The process of community building is not always easy, and consensus can not be assumed. Inclusion is not yet normalized in our city, and Union Square actively works to address this. For Biff, neighbors connecting is more important than neighbors agreeing because when neighbors feel they are part of a shared community, progress is inevitable.
AmeriCorps CPC 2021