Who’s Going to Start the Druid Hill Park Conservancy?

The “Central Park” of Baltimore is great but it could be glorious.

Years ago, I wrote short blog entry after returning from a visit to L.A. During the trip, we were strolling along the ocean-front path in Venice when we chanced upon an impressive beach home with a whimsically tiny patch of AstroTurf in front. The sign read: “World’s Smallest Front Yard.” The irony, of course, is that the home had an enormous front yard: the sand and grassy areas of Venice Beach and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Worlds smallest front yard

At the time, we lived on Druid Park Lake Drive (what locals call “Lake Drive”), and I couldn’t help but think of my own neighborhood named Reservoir Hill for the large source of drinking water that serves as an aquatic gateway to the “Central Park” of Baltimore.  In our nearly seven years in Baltimore, Druid Hill Park has been our lush, vital and undulating front yard. My children both learned to ride a bike around the lake. We walk our dog there, play tennis and visit the zoo, conservatory or farmers market. We have attended concerts and art exhibitions in the park. In nice weather I jog or cycle there, enjoying the interplay of forest and grass, whimsical historic pavilions, invigorated by numerous public and private celebrations. The park is alive, and I feel more alive within it.

Druid Hill Park has deep Jewish and African American resonance, making it the perfect front yard for a neighborhood like Reservoir Hill. Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a longtime Beth Am congregant, authored a paper in honor of the park’s 150th.  “From 1920 to 1960,” he said, “Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community.” Generations of black Baltimoreans have also come to rely on the park as a place to break bread or BBQ, swim, play basketball or tennis (Arthur Ashe used to play on the “negro” courts when the park was segregated).

The park is clean, beautiful and well used. But despite its noteworthy pedigree of Olmstead influence, it has yet to reach its modern potential. Why? Funding, of course! The Park Service does its utmost to keep up with the massive task of mowing grass, maintaining pools, playgrounds and pathways and creating new ball fields and cycling tracks. But more resources are needed to make the park worthy of being what in many ways it already is: a hub of green activity and leisure for Baltimore’s vital urban center.

lake renovation

The timing is right for catalytic investment in Druid Hill Park. The reservoir, one of the largest earthen-dammed lakes in the country, is scheduled to undergo a multi-year upgrade this summer. Two enormous tanks will be buried beneath the western portion of the lake, meeting a federal guideline for open-air reservoirs and allowing for recreational use. The city plans to put in a new fountain, an amphitheater, fishing and perhaps rowboats or paddleboats – Baltimore’s second waterfront! In addition, our area was just selected for up to $750,000 in targeted grants  for improved pedestrian and cycling access. This is an opportunity, as Councilman Leon Pinkett of the 7th District put it, …”to re-focus our priorities on improving quality of life for people living in and around Reservoir Hill, making jobs to the east and our world-class Druid Hill Park to the north safely accessible to residents who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.”

How to fund the gap between what the park ought to be and city’s limited budget? Look to the actual Central Park! For years, New York City has depended on the generosity of donors to its Central Park Conservancy. Such an idea has yet to be tried in Baltimore, but it seems to me this is the moment. With societal energy around sustainability, green-space and urban renewal, Druid Hill Park is ripe for visionary leadership to invest in our verdant gem. The gauntlet is thrown. Who will raise their hand and create the Druid Hill Park Conservancy, a tool for maximizing the potential energy of Baltimore’s enormous front yard?

A version of this column appears at Jmore

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