January 19, 2007



Before the Inner Harbor, and even before Charles Center, Baltimore's big glitzy downtown redevelopment area was Preston Gardens. Back then in the mid-20th century, it seemed that the planners thought that what the city needed most was a pretty face. So the theme of Preston Gardens was a very lovely green space that separated St. Paul Street into a lower and an upper road for five blocks between Centre and Lexington Streets.

In a downtown that was almost totally bereft of green space, this seemed like enough. Most of the new pre-Charles Center downtown construction ended up here, and the celebrated A. Aubrey Bodine documented each new building in his sumptuous black and white photography with Preston Gardens in the foreground.

To this day, the pretty photogenic face of Preston Gardens has been well preserved and its adjacent addresses have thrived, without boarded-up buildings or vacuous parking lots.

But Preston Gardens is not much of a park. And as a garden, Preston is no Eden. It's merely a backdrop or a foreground scene setter. Some office and hospital workers eat their lunch there and there is a small indigenous population that looks on and asks for spare change, but nothing that could be construed as vitality. There is not a hint of an urban community.

The first sign of corruption may have been in the 1930s when the Orleans Street Viaduct was built over Preston Gardens, bisecting it and interrupting the long sweeping continuity of the linear park. Pedestrians must either cross over to the other side of lower St. Paul and walk through a dark dank underpass, or else climb up to upper St. Paul and traverse two nasty intersections with traffic which has gained speed on either the expressway-like viaduct or down the steep Mulberry Street hill. In both directions, there are slalom S-curves that demand more of the motorists' attention than the presence of a few stray pedestrians.

The two intersections on upper St. Paul where the viaduct becomes Franklin and Mulberry Streets create a triangular space where Preston Gardens essentially ceases to exist, and this is by far the ugliest place in the area. A vista of the dome of the Basilica of the Assumption must compete with billboards (see photo above).

The above photo shows how the footway within Preston Gardens simply ends when it gets to the dark tunnel under the Orleans Viaduct.

Perhaps worst of all is the diagonal traffic chicane that was built to bisect the southern end of Preston Gardens to merge the upper and lower street traffic. This is the critical point where the park approaches the epicenter of downtown street activity, and the chicanery results in two triangular traffic islands (photo below) that render what is left of the park useless. The City often plants very beautiful flowers in these islands, but the beauty is only skin deep and can only be appreciated from afar, like through the windshield of a car.

Walking north from the Inner Harbor, Light Street traverses very the heart of downtown vitality as it becomes St. Paul at Baltimore Street. Two blocks later between Lexington and Saratoga where it enters Preston Gardens (shown above), it dies a sudden precipitous death.

So being pretty isn't everything. The young Joni Mitchell had a sweet pretty voice when she sang, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden." That didn't stop her from ruining her voice with cigarettes, but music critics still approve because she still sings the same old sweet message, only now with wise maturity. In the same way, we've got to get ourselves back to Preston Gardens.

The big current controversy is over one of the city's last remaining stands of grand early 19th century rowhouses, overlooking Preston Gardens (to the left in the photo above). Mercy Hospital wants to knock them down to expand the hospital. There used to be hundreds of these houses in the Preston Gardens area. Some of them were knocked down to build Preston Gardens itself. Many more were knocked down simply because there was no longer any community left to fight for their survival. They were replaced by big buildings and institutions like Mercy Hospital which related as well as possible to what Preston Gardens essentially had become - merely an attractive backdrop.

Therein is an important message for preservationists. To save historic buildings, just as to save any species, it is essential to save their habitat. Take away the habitat and the species will also disappear. There is no real neighborhood at Preston Gardens, so the houses have lost their habitat and their will to survive.

The battle to save those houses should have begun many years ago and encompassed a much larger area of focus. The clarion call should have been a larger and more intact block of similar rowhouses just to the north of Preston Gardens between Centre and Monument Streets (known as Waterloo Row) that was knocked down about 40 year ago for a parking lot. The Waterloo Apartments were eventually built on that site, and were designed to be oriented inward rather than toward the heavy and hazardous street traffic. (See the background of the photo above, just right of the street zigzag).

Since then, hardly anything has been done to improve the local habitat. Some 20 years ago, a design study recommended that the environment of Preston Gardens could be improved by shifting the heavier traffic stream from lower St. Paul onto upper St. Paul. This would have indeed made things better for lower St. Paul and would have allowed the green spaces to be redesigned with greater integrity. But the environment of upper St. Paul would have suffered. At the time, there were many more people and businesses on the upper than the lower street, so more people would have lost than gained from the switch. Thru traffic would have also suffered greatly because upper St. Paul requires the traversal of the two nasty intersections with Franklin, Mulberry and the Orleans Viaduct.

The key to improving the Preston Gardens environment is to examine traffic patterns over a much larger area. Traffic can be reduced on BOTH upper and lower St. Paul by diverting it to where it should be in the first place - the Jones Falls Expressway corridor between Guilford Avenue and Fallsway. There are many ways this can and should be accomplished, but two of them are:

  • Closing the Jones Falls Expressway off-ramp to St. Paul Street, which now allows St. Paul to serve as a dumping ground for downtown bound motorists. A whole lane worth of traffic (out of three lanes total) could be eliminated from St. Paul by doing this. (See the BIS article on Penn Station ).
  • Constructing the Greenmount-Belvidere Connector, which would intercept downtown oriented traffic from the northeast before it gets to St. Paul Street, and would instead feed it from Greenmount to the Jones Falls Corridor. (See BIS article on Mount Vernon-Belvidere).
Fixing the problem of too much traffic on St. Paul Street would allow Preston Gardens to be redesigned as more of a people place, with the left lane of the lower roadway converted to a pedestrian way to connect the parkland on either side of the viaduct, and with the slashing diagonal connector road just north of Lexington converted into a pair of civilized turns.

Beyond that, these measures would greatly improve the St. Paul Street environment in the Mount Vernon, Station North and Charles Village communities farther upstream to the north, all of which suffer from the afflictions of too much traffic. St. Paul Street in all of these neighborhoods could be made quieter, cleaner, more civilized, and with more full-time on-street parking. All of these neighborhoods would be able to function more like neighborhoods, with environmental habitats that would be far better able to support their fine old homes.

If a truly cohesive community had been established at some point, the new Waterloo Apartments could have been oriented to infuse life onto the streets. Transit service could have been vitalized to reduce the overwhelming dependency on cars and parking - Preston Gardens would make a great transit mall. Many of the area's huge nasty parking garages, such as the one that looms over Waterloo on the other side of Calvert Street, may have never needed to be built. Reduced parking demand would have freed up much of the land now used for parking garages for more productive uses such as the currently contemplated Mercy Hospital expansion. The remaining historic houses would have then become so valuable, and would have been occupied by people who really treasure them, so that no one would have even thought of tearing them down.

In conclusion, the front line in the battle over preservation battles should be over neighborhoods, not individual buildings. Baltimore has thousands of historic houses all over the city that are being continually abused by neglect and disinvestment caused by bad traffic and transportation management, bad schools, bad crime, high taxes and other economic distortions and urban problems. The preservation battle to save these buildings is too late because their habitat is already lost.

Saving a few old houses on lower St. Paul Street will not make Preston Gardens any less dead, and forcing the houses to be kept against the will of their owner will not provide an incentive for the owner to maintain them. And retaining the facades while demolishing what is behind them would simply perpetuate the preservation of pretty but superficial Preston Garden facades.

But fixing the larger problems such as excessive traffic on St. Paul Street will allow the larger environment to function properly, saving whole communities instead of just a few houses.

January 17, 2007



Attention tree huggers !!!! A sacred piece of Druid Hill Park has been bulldozed by a fat cat developer to build houses for a damn buncha chablis 'n' brie yuppies !!!!!!!! The photo above shows what the developer hath wrought. Oh the shame !!!!!! The perfect refuge for the common man has been surrendered to the capitalistic machine for the despoliation of mother nature's perfect creation, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc....

OK, enough with the sarcasm. Streuver Brothers Eccles and Rouse is a very fine developer with admirable intentions, but we cannot expect them to always cater to the good folks who prefer 40 ounce malt beverages purchased through Plexiglas Lazy Susans. Moreover, there was probably a sound legal basis for bulldozing the virgin forest in question. It sure looked like parkland, but the truth is in the legal documents, not in our eyes.

The location of this yuppie invasion is on the north edge of Druid Hill Park just east of Parkdale Avenue, near Woodberry. Below is a shot of Parkdale just inside the portion of the park beyond that which was spared from the bulldozer's wrath. The City has erected a seemingly permanent barbed wire gate to keep the entire public out. Everyone !!!!! That means you, whoever you are...

The City has kept the vast northern outback of Druid Hill Park almost totally off limits to all species of homo sapiens for many years. Signs say "No Trespassing" and various other admonishments. If that doesn't work, there are low gates. Beyond that are the barbed wire fences.

So obviously the function of the Druid Hill Park outback is not to serve human beings. So what is the function? Well, the City has cultivated various piles of debris and materials in various locations, so storage must be considered one of its prime functions. Druid Hill Park could be construed as a kind of urban backroom closet. Beyond that, there is the calming reassuring notion that since people are the source of most urban problems, as long as people are kept out of the park, there will be no problems.

Too bad the City can't solve its problems in other urban areas by just fumigating them of all human habitation. It's a very simple equation. No humans equals no problems. This is a very attractive selling point for the new yuppie houses that will be built along the edge of the Druid Hill Park outback. It's really a very time-tested, tried-and-true formula. Waterfront development works largely the same way. Nobody lives in the water. Ergo, no problems. Living on the edge of the water equates to problem-free living.

It has also worked brilliantly for many decades in an adjacent location on the edge of Druid Hill Park just to the east. The picture above shows Druid Hill Park looking westward from Hampden. Peaking through the trees on the hill are houses on Seneca and Parkden Avenues that are essentially nestled inside Druid Hill Park.

This idyllic residential setting on Seneca and Parkden sets the precedent for the housing that Streuver Brothers has planned for Druid Hill Park. Its a wonderful opportunity to create a new top quality residential community. Opportunities like this don't come along very often in Baltimore.

Druid Hill Park was not built to be the type of urban park that is a central focal point for its surrounding neighborhoods. In the nineteenth century, Druid Hill Park was originally at the very outer edge of the city. The southern part of the park was its front door, where people from the city would arrive at the end of the transit system. This was the "people" part of the park. Beyond it to the north wasn't really parkland at all, but just the rural countryside beyond the park.

Astonishingly in 2007, this is still the way Druid Hill Park functions. The northern outback of the park still isn't parkland. It's rural - even though it is now squarely in the city.

In the early 1960s, Druid Hill Park was shut off from the city even more by the construction of the Jones Falls Expressway. This reinforced the isolation of the east edge of the park. The Hampden neighborhood is directly adjacent to Druid Hill Park to the east, but they might as well be in different universes.

At any time in the past four decades, the wall between Hampden and the park could have been penetrated, but it hasn't. The photo above shows Druid Hill Park from Ash Street in Hampden. This indicates how simple it would be to create access to the park under one of the large expressway overpasses. The photo also shows the current construction of a sewage pumping station at this location. The park access could be incorporated into the pumping station project.

But instead, the lack of access to Baltimore's foremost park has always been a convenient stalemate situation. No humans equals no problems. But also no opportunities. It is as though people were and are afraid that any human intervention between people and the park would only cause problems.

But there are plenty of examples of artful park planning for human use. Central Park in New York is the most famous and obvious example. Central Park is used by millions of people. It is as thoroughly urban as any place can be, and yet it is still a park, and an extremely attractive, valuable and environmentally responsible one.

Beyond that, Seneca and Parkden Avenues are examples of people essentially living inside Druid Hill Park, and Baltimore has examples that go beyond even that. Fairmont is an absolutely gorgeous neighborhood in West Baltimore off Clifton Avenue that is almost totally surrounded by parkland. Dickeyville is a more well-known and celebrated historic neighborhood off Forest Park Avenue.

No one complains about these places, not even the tree huggers. Trees were lost to roads and houses when these neighborhoods were built, but many more trees remain and are planted anew, and these trees are truly cherished and nurtured. Those yuppies who buy the new houses that Streuver Brothers is getting ready to build will certainly do so as well. No one complains about a lack of trees on Seneca and Parkden.

We need to fully re-examine the relationships between the parks in Baltimore and the communities that surround them. We need to avoid thinking about parks as being simply a certain quantity of acreage, and start thinking of them as having the best possible relationship with the people who live around them and who will act as their stewards. Creating a full-time human relationship with a park is the best way to ensure that parks will no longer be used as a trash and storage receptacle.

There is much more potential for redesigning the northern outback of Druid Hill Park to foster a better relationship with human beings. There are some spectacular settings where the park and the people could interact.

Above is a picture taken from the hill above Seneca and Parkden Avenues, looking eastward toward Hampden. Further up at the top of the hill, the view is even better. This could be one of the best addresses in Baltimore, enhancing and enhanced by the park the surrounds it.

Another important strategy is the creation of defined edges for the park. This is a major problem for the north outback of Druid Hill Park, as it is for many other places in Baltimore (see Baltimore InnerSpace article on Carroll Park ).

The north outback of Druid Hill Park now serves mostly as the private wooded backyard for the people who live adjacent to it, as well as those who will buy the houses that are about to be built. This is fine for those people but not for the rest of us. Those who live near the park should be its stewards, but not its sole private beneficiaries.

The public should demand a public face for public park access, and this can best be done by the establishment of street edges that provide access and define precisely where the park begins.

Druid Hill Park could be synonymous with a truly prestigious address, to be shared between its residents and visitors. Who wouldn't want to visit a park that is both a pristine natural reserve and adjacent to the home of well-heeled residents who keep it that way? Of course, some fat-cats prefer to live in sealed-off gated communities, but many others would enjoy living where they can associate themselves with Baltimore's premier park. The north edge of Druid Hill Park should entice everyone.



Stand in your front yard and look up in the sky. What do you see?

From several streets in Brooklyn Park, what you see in the sky are scores of trucks and trailers. No, it's not flying trucks, and it's not a heavenly apparition, although it's probably the closest thing we'll see to what R.E.M. referred to as "a truck stop instead of Saint Peter's" in their tribute to Andy Kaufman, "Man on the Moon".

The Brooklyn Park neighborhood west of Belle Grove Road is right next to the shore of the Patapsco River and Southwest Park, but nobody can see either of those landmarks from there, due to a sound wall constructed next to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (seen at the end of the street in the photo above).

January 5, 2007


Please think of this as part of the time-honored Baltimore tradition of looking on the bright side of things, like naming our great NFL football team for the morbid-minded Edgar Allen Poe, or the way we take pride in our City's TV series like "Homicide".