December 5, 2006

Overlooking Carroll Park

One of Baltimore's most celebrated, most historic and most well-preserved mansions overlooks an industrial wasteland. The reason that this is tolerated is probably because the industrial wasteland serves as a buffer to separate the mansion and its vast glorious park environment from one of Baltimore's seediest neighborhoods. That situation feeds the all-too-common mentality that historic parks and treasures are things to be sealed-off from human riff-raff rather than treated as the human resources that they should be.

The mansion is Carroll mansion, home of one of Maryland's leading 18th century citizens. The park is Carroll Park, the west side equivalent of East Baltimore's Patterson Park, which has become the focus of neighborhood revitalization emanating in every direction. The neighborhood is Mount Clare, named after the birthplace of American railroading which now houses the B&O Railroad Museum. The industrial wasteland is mostly owned by the B&O Museum, which has hugely ambitious plans but has many less remote and higher priority places to spend its precious funds than here.

The Mount Clare neighborhood turns its back on the park. Its streets dead-end into the industrial wasteland where trash accumulates. Generally, the closer its houses are to the park, the worse they are maintained. The north end of the Mount Clare neighborhood abuts Union Square, which has been beautifully renovated along with the homes that surround it, while the properties right next to Carroll Park are mostly in a state of dissolution that makes it difficult to tell what is supposed to be residential and what is industrial.

The industrial wasteland is also occupied by rotting railroad cars that are the target of graffiti artists and other vandals and miscreants. These railroad cars also form a bit of an additional barrier between the neighborhood and the park. In the picture above, the neighborhood is hidden off to the left, while Carroll Park is hidden off to the right.

Carroll Park itself is beautifully maintained, considering that it has very little local constituency. Its shape is a huge trapezoid and only its smallest dimension, the three blocks on the east edge adjacent to Pigtown's Bayard Street, has a residential frontage (shown above). To the south is Washington Boulevard, which is mostly fronted by the distinctive historic headquarters of the City's streetcar fleet, now retrofitted for the storage and maintenance of MTA buses.

On the west edge of Carroll Park is possibly Baltimore's greatest recent preservation success story - the magnificent Montgomery Park, the City's very largest office building. While the magnitude of this success cannot be overstated, it underscores a planning principal that is well-known in urban areas throughout the country - that an office district that lacks support from other uses such as residential and retail will become a dead zone after the end of weekday business hours.

So it is the north side of Carroll Park, with the industrial wasteland that comes between it and the Mount Clare neighborhood, which is by far the longest dimension of park frontage. Hidden along a long appendage to the northwest corner of the park is the Carroll Park golf course, the vast Gwynns Falls Trail and the incredible Carrollton Railroad Viaduct, but these remote gems are hidden so completely from the rest of the park that they might as well be on the moon. Here is an urban neighborhood with its very own public golf course, probably the least elitist golf course in the whole metropolitan area, but it's still beyond most of the folks in Mount Clare.

Imagine if Patterson Park, or any other successful urban park anywhere, had to exist in the same type of environment as Carroll Park, particularly along its north edge. What if Patterson Park, instead of being surrounded as it is by rowhouses overlooking the greenery, had a vast intervening industrial wasteland like that which comes between Carroll Park and the Mount Clare neighborhood? What if instead of being drawn into the park by the surrounding streets, one had to cut through a totally undifferentiated thicket of weeds and bushes to get there?

Great parks are defined by the streets and communities that surround them. Imagine New York's Central Park without Fifth or Seventh Avenue (the latter better known as Central Park West) or Chicago's Grant Park without Michigan Avenue. All they would be is just big pieces of land. That's what Carroll Park is.

There is an irony to the way Carroll Park and Mount Clare evolved over the years. When the Carroll mansion was built in the 18th century, and even when the first railroad track was laid in the mid 19th century, they were on the rural fringe. This area has really never been urban. The inner city Mount Clare neighborhood went through its entire urban life cycle from birth to decay without an urban connection to Carroll Park.

The Carroll mansion's lack of an urban connection is reflected by the fact that the front yard of the house faces the back of the park. The mansion's elegant front gateway is shown above, only a couple hundred feet away from the Mount Clare urban wasteland in the background. The mansion is as disconnected from the City as its park surroundings.

What Carroll Park desperately needs is a front door that creates a community identity. The industrial wasteland along the north edge of Carroll Park should be replaced with an urban street that defines the edge of the park in the most public way possible, which would become the address of new rows of distinctive rowhouses that would overlook Carroll Park, the same way that Fifth Avenue overlooks Central Park. The worst address in Mount Clare would be instantly transformed into the best. The front yard of the Carroll mansion would be right across the street from the new houses, setting the architectural tone.

The entire Mount Clare neighborhood would then be redefined as the neighborhood that leads to Carroll Park instead of the neighborhood that backs up into an industrial wasteland. The B&O Railroad Museum would then finally be able to run its vintage train tours through the urban neighborhood that rightfully grew out of the rural hinterland that once existed, instead of through the land that time forgot.

The historic train tracks could also be adapted to run streetcars or light rail transit from the Inner Harbor to Montgomery Park, connecting downtown to the City's largest office building and encouraging further employment and residential growth, revitalizing the Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center and extending the reach of the tourist district to include the B&O Museum. This is a logical extension of the new urban wave which is currently proceeding from Camden Yards and Ridgely's Delight into Pigtown.

The Mount Clare neighborhood should overlook Carroll Park the same way that great urban neighborhoods overlook great urban parks throughout the world.


  1. I would love it if the Mt. Clare neighborhood was developed with Carroll Park as its backdrop. In the few years I've lived here, I've watched the park...and it's markedly better now than when we moved here seven years ago -- but it still, like most of our area, has a ways to go. I'm considering a move from my current neighborhood of Barre Circle -- further up Washington Boulevard. Perhaps when the time comes, moving close to the park will be an attractive option.

  2. Really really great ideas.

    I was over there a couple weekends ago to go to the B&O Museum (fun, but not much in the way of a great narrative about either the B&O Railroad or railroading generally, mostly it's just about the equipment they have, which is cool!). Didn't get a chance to explore the area around the museum though.

    Have you shared these ideas with the Pigtown (Or whatever they are calling it) Main Street program?

  3. Whatever we do, we need to preserve the RR ROW. It's part of the Cohen alternate rail plan. We can spur of the CAC Red Line under MLK and come to the surface along Mt. Claire.


  4. First of all get the girls and boys to clean up themselves.Get them to also clean up the park and Pigtowne.When I was younger my mom and friends would go to the park to swing on the swings,play baseball.Have a picnic all day long and we went home took a bath,watched a little tv and go to bed.It is very hard to see how bad everything is going down hill.