David Nyweide: How stuff gets done in the neighborhood

As outgoing BHCA president, David Nyweide made these remarks at the annual BHCA membership meeting.

A couple years ago someone asked me a fundamental question—what is BHCA’s purpose?  The question was well intentioned.  BHCA is not a homeowner’s association.  It’s not an organization anyone is required to join.  To answer that question, I could cite BHCA’s bylaws about enhancing the quality of life of the Bolton Hill community, but in truth, BHCA exists for a greater purpose, especially vital today.

Six years ago, a book was published by Marc Dunkelman called The Vanishing Neighbor.  Dunkelman builds on previous sociological research to theorize that three rings of relationships have defined Americans’ relations with each other throughout the country’s history.  The inner-ring relationships, as you can probably guess, comprise the family members and dearest friends of our lives.  In the outer ring are our acquaintances, who we have fleeting contact with at work, at the store, or through social media.  The middle ring is composed of the people we may know from where we worship, through volunteering opportunities, or as fellow members in civic associations.

As Dunkelman argues, it’s the middle-ring relationships that are the essential glue for binding a community together, yet it’s the middle ring that has been weakening in 21st century America.  As we spend more and more time with the closest people in our inner ring and with our third-ring relationships online, the common attitude among Americans is that we don’t have enough time anymore for middle-ring relationships.  It’s why in so many places in America these days, it’s not uncommon not to know the people living next door.

Middle-ring relationships are how stuff gets done in a neighborhood.  They’re about neighbors coming together for the betterment of the place where they live, forming connections and building a stronger community.  It’s the middle-ring relationships that provide a starting point to sort out the differences that may arise in our points of view or to rise to emergent neighborhood-wide challenges.

Bolton Hill is a community where middle-ring relationships are robust, and BHCA has played a vital role in keeping them healthy.  People from outside Bolton Hill are routinely stunned when I tell them that at least 50 people regularly attend our monthly BHCA meetings.  We live in an era when these kinds of town hall gatherings are less frequently part of our lives.  

To be sure, we’ve really had to adapt over the past year to maintain those middle-ring relationships.  We hesitated to hold BHCA meetings virtually because of concerns of accessibility, difficulty with running a large meeting, and simply the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would snuff out and allow us to return to our routine of gathering in Farnham Hall at Memorial Episcopal Church.  

BHCA had its first virtual meeting last May and postponed last year’s annual membership meeting until June.  Over the past year, instead of gathering together at Farnham Hall, we’ve gathered independently in our homes at the same time, muting and unmuting ourselves as necessary, and becoming accustomed to sharing our thoughts and questions through the chat window.  We’ve been able to make greater use of the Bolton Hill Email Network to send out advice about COVID-19 as well as other information affecting the Bolton Hill community.  We can say that Festival on the Hill continued in its 67th year with smaller scale performances outdoors and virtual performances in the evening.  And in February, we hosted a “new neighbor” party of about 25 households over Zoom.

We reached out to recruit new members with BHCA postcards and collected dues online without relying on the parking permit pick-up days to reach new BHCA members and remind others to renew their dues.  While BHCA serves everyone who is part of the Bolton Hill community, it takes dues and donations to financially support the greening efforts and events around the neighborhood, so we have to continue to work to increase BHCA membership, which has decreased in recent years.  

And progress on activities pre-dating the COVID-19 pandemic has continued.  The strategic planning committee developed a plan to guide Bolton Hill’s next decade.  We relaunched the Bolton Hill Bulletin with the redevelopment of a website worthy of our wonderful neighborhood.  Flex posts were installed at Lanvale Street and Mt. Royal Avenue as well as John and Howard Streets to enhance resident and pedestrian safety.  BHCA convened a committee that is researching public historic monuments, plaques, and names in Bolton Hill to better understand why they were placed where they are and what bearing that history has on us today with greater awareness of systemic racism.  As a growing 501c3 organization, BHCA developed its fiscal sponsorship policy for projects in the neighborhood such as the Contee-Parago Park renovation, Park and North rejuvenation, and Linden Gazebo restoration.  

The greening committee has had a renaissance and regrowth.  With the help of the Midtown Community Benefits District, the greening committee has been applying for grants to link Bolton Hill parks closer with Madison Park parks, coordinating the work of informal stewards of green spaces, holding a Veterans’ Day memorial service at Congressional Medal of Honor Park, and refocusing overall on how Bolton Hill can be greener.  The Social Action Task Force continues to organize Parties with a Purpose, including last year’s Masked Pumpkin Party to bring people together to raise money and awareness of non-profits doing excellent work in our ZIP Code.  And we’re more open than ever to working with our neighbors to the west to counter Bolton Hill’s regretful history of insularity and exclusion.

Simply put, BHCA’s purpose is to cultivate middle-ring relationships, both in and around Bolton Hill.  I love it when middle-ring relationships bring people together with an idea to make Bolton Hill an even finer place to live.  These ideas sprout from a desire to organize a group to weed the planting beds of a park or to raise money for and awareness of local non-profits or to pick up trash and clean up a neglected corner of the neighborhood.  It’s when neighbors on Eutaw Place ask how we can build a bridge to our neighbors in Madison Park and collaborate on projects of mutual benefit.  It’s this energy and collaborative spirit of its residents that make Bolton Hill more neighborly.

Our strong middle-ring relationships explain why it’s the people—not merely the beautiful row homes—that make Bolton Hill the marvelous community it is.  Attendance levels at our monthly meetings nurture middle-ring relationships, particularly when they’re in person.  And they’re strengthened even more outside of meetings when neighbors find common cause to work together for the good of Bolton Hill and our corner of Baltimore, or to simply sit on the stoop and socialize together.

It’s been an honor serving the neighborhood with you over the past two years, and I look forward to continuing to foster the middle-ring relationships that bind us closer together as a community.  After all, we still have work to do.