ON THE SOAPBOX:

What Makes A Neighborhood?

by Lynda Lambert
When Hampden’s librarian retired recently, 300 people stood in line to hug and cry and let her know she would be missed.
       Our current mayor has professed a desire to help us save our neighborhoods. Good. But, the question I have is, “Does he or anyone in the City Council remember what that means?”

       A neighborhood is like a small town. In order to function as a neighborhood, it needs businesses at a central location, within walking distance for the majority of residents. A stable neighborhood has its own elementary school, a library, a “rec,” a park.

       One of the biggest problems in City neighborhood de-stabilization over the last 25 years has been the closing down of such services. Neighborhood schools have been turned into city-wide schools or shut down. Neighborhood businesses have been put out of business for many reasons—not the least of which is absentee property owners wanting to cash in on the development craze.

       Rec centers have been closed. Parks, if they’re still there, “close” at dusk.

       And now, once again, we have the battle to save our neighborhood libraries.

       Neighbors need places to congregate. And in cohesive neighborhoods, one of those places is the neighborhood library.

       The spokesman for the Enoch Pratt Free Libraries, Judy Cooper, says that, “Five years ago, when we put forth our facilities plan for the future, we decided that the minimum size for a library would be 6,000 square feet.”

       I asked her why and she said that they’re looking toward the future, toward all the bells and whistles. They want computer space, meeting rooms and community rooms. That all sounds great, but what good does a “community” room do me, if it’s not in my community?

       All a neighborhood needs is a place where it can go and get books. We don’t need the bells and whistles. We just need an easy place to walk to on a sunny afternoon to get a book.

       The library could be the size of a closet and it would be okay, because any book that the Pratt owns is available. And the central Pratt is big; lots bigger than 6,000 sq. ft.

       At the Hampden branch of the Enoch Pratt a month ago, a librarian retired. No big whoop, right? In large, suburban libraries like the regional giant the Pratt is planning to build on Eastern Avenue, no one would even know her name. But at Hampden, it was definitely a big deal and everyone knew her name; and, what’s more, she knew theirs.

       Over 300 people came to the library that day and drank punch and ate cookies and brought presents, and stood in line to hug and cry and let a favorite librarian know that she would be missed.

       The reason they came is a simple one. The Hampden Library and the people in it are part of the neighborhood.

       Every neighborhood in Baltimore used to be like Hampden. No matter how eclectic or how culturally segregated, each neighborhood was a cohesive whole that had institutional neighbors that were just as important as the guy next door.

       Now that’s all being threatened. Again.

       If the Mayor and the City pundits really agree with me that to save the City we must save the neighborhoods, then they’re going about it all wrong. Don’t build a regional library. Take that money and build more, cozy, neighborhood libraries. Give us back our recs; give us back our parks.

       Create an incentive for people to remain where they are and they will. And then all the rest will fix itself.


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This story was published on April 4, 2001.