“Point towards the sky if you keep your feet on the ground.”
Hands went up towards a picture-perfect sky during Femi the DriFish’s afternoon performance at the Reservoir Hill Festival. Femi, who was also the festival’s master of ceremonies, possesses a cocktail of personality traits that are desperately needed in this world. He seems just as comfortable chatting it up with elderly neighbors and toddlers as he does leading his band through an energetic and soulful set in his trademark top hat and face paint.
I felt an undeniable sense of history as I stood facing the Druid Hill Park Gate on Madison Ave. The gate dates back to 1860, shortly after the city purchased the land. An uphill trolly ride towards the gate transported city dwellers to an afternoon countryside respite (sheep and all).
Here I was in 2012, peering towards the entrance of Reservoir Hill— a neighborhood more recently known for being rich in architecture, but lacking in social support and opportunity.
The northwest Baltimore community of Reservoir Hill, which sits just below Druid Lake Park and north of Bolton Hill, has played an important role in the city’s Jewish and African American histories. At its heart stands the St. Francis Neighborhood Center. The mansion (and former residence of Joseph A. Banks) was, “The only place that stayed here after the [1968 race] riots,” according to the late Frank Composto.
Father Composto became the conscience of the neighborhood. He dedicated his life to supporting and serving Reservoir Hill through St. Francis and its Power Project, a development program for disadvantaged youth. His vision is still being fulfilled with events like the second annual Reservoir Hill Festival. (Listen to this tribute, which aired on WYPR.)
I first came into contact with St. Francis when they hired me to share my Beatwell drumming and wellness program with their Power Project kids. Corrine Handy (Power’s Program Director) and Cailin Barker took part in the program, which often helps reveal our true nature through rhythmic activities. I was given a glimpse into who these women are by seeing them drum with the kids. They serve as empathetic caregivers and north stars of guiding light. It revealed the wealth of social resources that Reservoir Hill must continue to support and nurture.
The festival kicked off with the seventh annual Resource Fair, providing residents with free services, school supplies, and more. Festival organizers included other St. Francis members: Sarah Tarighi Murphy (Executive Director), Sarah Sullivan (Program Associate), Abby Becker (Volunteer Coordinator), and a volunteer committee including Dan Samuels, who drummed with J Pope and Funk Friday.
Dan also curated the 8 hours of live music, scheduling 11 of Baltimore’s finest acts, all of whom donated their time and talent. Live music was the heart of this festival. The performances served as the connecting force, bringing together a diverse neighborhood in celebration and affirmation.
There was no shortage of quality local food selections. The Gathering, Baltimore’s premier food trucks collective, set up shop along Whitelock St., leading festival goers towards the Whitelock Community Farm. The resident-run, urban garden, which broke soil in 2010, has received notable attention recently.
The nearby Linden Market was the only business I saw during a neighborhood stroll. They began selling Whitelock Farm produce last month— a business model from which city “food deserts” could learn a lot. Be sure to stop by the Whitelock Harvest Festival on Sunday, October 7!
The festival’s mission: “Cultivate community identity and solidarity among residents, Increase neighborhood visibility, and Provide space for community engagement through the arts, recreation, and culture.” When Femi asked us to, “Point towards the sky if you keep your feet on the ground,” I realized the event’s profound successes.
The quote embodies the spirit of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center, the Power Project, and the festival they brought to life. This dedicated team do keep their feet on the ground. They work realistically given their neighborhood’s circumstances— grateful for those willing to contribute, and humble in their efforts. Yet each day they “reach for the sky” with aspiration, optimism, and creativity to strive for something greater than themselves.
A fitting metaphor for the 2012 Reservoir Hill Festival.
Additional Photos by Hannah Friedland: