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Renewing an
Urban Watershed

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Tension crackles in the air of the drab conference room at the Bon Secours Hospital Community Center on North Fulton Street. The turnout at the monthly meeting of the Watershed 263 Stakeholder Advisory Committee is smaller than usual. Only three out of the twelve neighborhoods have representatives present, and one of them is upset.

This is despite today's good news. A considerable infusion of cash is coming into the watershed - the Department of Transportation has earmarked $900,000 for a proposed greenway, and it's put a plan on the table for how to spend it. But Inez Robb isn't ready to buy in. Not yet.

Inex Robb - photo by Skip Brown Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood - photo by Skip Brown
A bright spirit, community leader Inez Robb (left) has served her Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood ever since she became a homeowner there 20 years ago (her block above, with its new grassy median). Robb's connection to community made her a natural for her role on the Watershed 263 Stakeholder Advisory Council. She helps link residents in the watershed with an ambitious pilot project aimed at improving both environmental quality and the quality of life. Photographs by Skip Brown.

"It looks like it's already planned," she objects. "We only have a couple of people from the watershed here. Had we known this [would be discussed], we could have had a huge crowd.... That is what should have happened."

The problem isn't the plan. Jessica Keller, the Planning Division Chief for the DOT in Baltimore, proposes putting the money into greening efforts in the area near the MARC train, where the city is already investing a hefty sum. Keller's plan would leverage the impact of a relatively small dollar amount.

The problem is the process. The decision on where to spend the money seems to be a done-deal - and a deal done when many of the stakeholders are not in the room, especially those representing the affected neighborhoods of Union Square and New Southwest. "I believe in teams, in hearing people, in buy-in," says Inez Robb, who represents the watershed from the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. Without that buy-in, the best-laid plans will seldom work, whether it's cleaning old stables or building new greenways.

Community plans have a better shot at success when people like Robb buy in. Soon after she bought her first home in Sandtown-Winchester, on a newly renovated block in an otherwise troubled neighborhood, she joined the board of her condominium association and soon became its president. It is "not a thankful job," she says, but she's served faithfully for 17 years. "I'm a committed person," she says. "That's with everything. If I say I'm going to do it, I'll do it."

Robb's work with her condo board spawned a deeper involvement in community issues. She now serves on at least five different neighborhood or community advisory groups, including the Watershed 263 Stakeholder's Advisory Council. That's in addition to her day job as an IT specialist for the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, where she's worked for 41 years.

But it is not just about doing it herself. It's about building capacity, she says. "I like empowering, sharing what I know to help you grow...I'm there with you 110 percent, but you need to do it."

True to character, Robb takes her commitment to Watershed 263 seriously. She sees communication and education as essential to success. "Those that are aware of the watershed and make the connection between greening, renovated lots, [Baltimore] Harbor, and the Bay, I think they love it.... But [with water] being underground, we don't often think about it." She says it is hard for people to make the link between eating crabs from the Bay and trash on the streets of Baltimore.

Starting the construction of the long-anticipated greenway project in Watershed 263 offers an exciting opportunity for the project — Robb
agrees with that. She realizes that many decisions remain to be made about exactly what $900,000 will buy and what the project will entail. But Robb knows that the people affected by new construction of any sort should be at the table. She'll make phone calls. She'll go door-to-door. She'll do whatever she can to help get them there.
Celebrating a heroine of the Franklin Square neighborhood, a building-sized mural (right) honors the legacy of Ella Thompson (third from left). After her daughter Andrea was murdered near Fayette Street in 1988, Thompson embarked on a personal crusade to safeguard and enrich the lives of West Baltimore's youth. Within a year of her daughter's death, she became the director of the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, a post she held for seven years. In 1996, she joined the Parks & People Foundation as one of the directors of KidsGrow, a program that introduces urban youngsters to ecological sciences and community stewardship. In 1998, while driving a car full of donated computer equipment to a city recreation center, Thompson, only 47, suffered a fatal heart attack. Photograph by Skip Brown.
Guy Hager - photo by Skip Brown children playing at Franklin Square Middle School - photo by Skip Brown
In the new green space by Franklin Square Elementary Middle School, Parks & People's Guy Hager (left) clips a tie from a young tree that's now strong enough to stand on its own. Only a small fringe of asphalt remains in this once paved-over schoolyard, where children now enjoy a backdrop of green as they congregate during a break from class (above, bottom). Photographs on by Skip Brown.
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