In my remarks at the May BHCA membership meeting, I referred to the “ring theory,” coined by Marc Dunkelman in a book called The Vanishing Neighbor. The ring theory stipulates three layers of relationships in our American lives. The inner layer is our family members and closest friends. The outer layer is acquaintances we might know through work or social media. The middle layer is the relationships in which we voluntarily participate through religious or civic institutions, which include, yes, community associations like BHCA.
The middle ring is the glue that keeps civil societies functioning. Middle ring relationships form relational bonds between people through common purposes and, in turn, strengthen the communities around them. But it’s the middle-ring relationships that are deteriorating across the country as people spend more of their time on their inner- and outer-ring relationships, crowding out middle-ring relationships because they’re considered less important.
As you can gather from all the positive activities happening around Bolton Hill, we have healthy middle-ring relationships in our neighborhood, at least among our neighbors who are active in BHCA-related activities. Yet, if membership in our community association is any indication, the drop in BHCA members since 2017 shows that not as many of our neighbors have found supporting these activities worthwhile in recent years.
How come? Membership dues have been the same for as long as I’ve lived in Bolton Hill. In 2018, we jettisoned the “Mt. Royal Improvement Association” in favor of better name recognition with BHCA, which would seem to be a good reason why membership should increase. Our organizational reputation hasn’t suffered from scandal or mismanagement. In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 interrupted our reliance on the parking permit pick-up in March to recruit new members and remind existing members to renew, but these trends pre-date the pandemic. While in the past three years we’ve seen growth in the number of members each calendar year before the May membership meeting and still have more time to add members over the rest of 2022, we’re still well below the high mark of 439 member households in 2017. It’s easy to forget to pay our BHCA dues each year, and we might think we already paid or our spouse paid. Yet, even though it’s easier than ever to pay dues online at any time of the year, we still have not returned to the membership levels of five to 10 years ago.
I wonder whether the drop in BHCA membership is evidence of the fraying middle-ring relationships in our country at large. As we found in our latest strategic plan finalized last year, about a quarter of Bolton Hill residents are over the age of 65, compared with 12 percent citywide according to Census data. Many long-time residents have been MRIA or BHCA members each year as a matter of course, yet as older residents of the neighborhood move on, newer residents have to find a reason to support their community association. And if they haven’t had a reason to prioritize middle-ring relationships in their lives, they won’t grasp the relevance of BHCA to their lives.
In the opening decade of the twentieth century, a philosopher named Josiah Royce published a treatise called “The Philosophy of Loyalty.” Its central insight is that loyalty—directed by groups of people toward a cause or institution—can channel individual impulses into the larger purposes of a collective whole. Loyalty is healthy, Royce posited, when it doesn’t demand exclusive fidelity to a single cause but allows individuals to have multiple loyalties. To apply the “Philosophy of Loyalty” to Bolton Hill, BHCA exists to stoke loyalties to what we love about our neighborhood. You can be a loyal member to BHCA while being loyal to the block where you live or the park nearest your home or a neighborhood project that especially interests you. You can be a loyal member to BHCA while attending a church in the neighborhood, joining the Bolton Hill Garden Club, or belonging to your homeowner’s association.
We have to continually work to make BHCA relevant to everyone who loves Bolton Hill. BHCA is the conduit for fostering connections between neighbors to, in turn, work together on aspects of our community life that enliven and enhance the lives of everyone in Bolton Hill. I’m talking about an array of activities in our community life, some of which I highlighted earlier: volunteering to plan and put on the events we all love in the neighborhood; writing an article for the Bolton Hill Bulletin; spreading the word about an event in or around the neighborhood; sharing pertinent information from the City through the Bolton Hill Email Network or Facebook page; organizing neighbors to petition the City for traffic calming measures; throwing a Party with a Purpose to raise money for a non-profit doing great work; organizing a group to pick up litter; planting or weeding in a park or tree well; or leading a project that improves the greenscaping or hardscaping in a corner of the neighborhood. Membership dues and donations help make all these activities possible. Becoming a BHCA member recognizes that just as you take care of the house or apartment where you live, supporting BHCA is a key way to care for the community where you live.
Sometimes I’m asked why anyone would want to expend the time and effort to lead a community association, as I have for much of the past three years. My response is that it’s because I love Bolton Hill. Some of you know the narrative hook of my Bolton Hill story: I was moving to Baltimore a little more than a dozen years ago, and when I would ask people who knew Baltimore about where to live, I kept hearing good things about a neighborhood called Bolton Hill. And so one day I drove up Eutaw and parked my car off McMechen and started walking.
Within a couple blocks, I was smitten enough by the architecture of the row homes that I decided I only wanted to look for an apartment in Bolton Hill. And when it was time two years later to look for a home to buy, I only wanted to look here. Over time, I became more involved in the community association simply because I care so much about Bolton Hill and connecting it more and more with our neighbors to the west and north. I’ll continue to be involved around Bolton Hill in greening work, rejuvenating the lot at Park and North Avenues, and serving in the BHCA executive committee as past president.
Everyone who came out to the membership meeting showed loyalty to BHCA, which I was grateful to see. Your charge is to ask the people you know in Bolton Hill—your neighbors—if they’re BHCA members and urge them to become members if they’re not. Tell them why BHCA is important for supporting what you love about Bolton Hill and relevant enough to support with your membership.
– David Nyweide is the outgoing president of BHCA