Blazing a Trail to Renewal—Land&People

For 50 of his 81 years, Ed Ash has fished Gwynns Falls, a rocky, green-banked stream that flows seven miles through several city parks and 30 neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland. Wetting his line at favorite spots along the stream–one of them in the shadow of America’s oldest railroad bridge–Ash catches smallmouth bass and sunfish. “It’s scenic down there,” he says. “A nice place to look around.”

Until a few years ago, Ash and other urban anglers in this city of 650,000 would not have seen many people while fishing this scenic river and enjoying the semiwild forested parks through which it runs. City government and local residents all but abandoned the stream corridor after Tropical Storm Agnes ravaged them in 1972. It didn’t help that Gwynns Falls runs through some of Baltimore’s most depressed, crime-ridden neighborhoods. In a city where homicides happen almost daily, fearful parents warned children to stay indoors, away from the streets and nowhere near the woods. Once-lovely roadsides in the parks became dump sites.

As for city government, in the 1970s and 1980s its dreams for renewal were focused on the tourist-oriented Inner Harbor and a redevelopment project that would climax in 1992 with the opening of the Baltimore Orioles’ new Camden Yards baseball stadium.

But help was on the way for Gwynns Falls. In 1989 the late Ralph Jones, then director of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks, met Professor William Burch, of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, at a parks conference. In a presentation, Burch argued that parks and green space could and should help revive communities and local economies. Intrigued, Jones invited the professor to use Baltimore as a laboratory for some of his ideas. The city was relatively rich in green space and parks but chronically short on funds for parks programs. Seizing the opportunity, Burch dispatched 18 Yale interns to assist Baltimore with park-related projects, particularly working with local young people to help rebuild damaged parks.

Burch recalls wandering in the woods near Gwynns Falls with one of his Yale colleagues. In a 1904 plan for the Baltimore park system, the firm of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had envisioned a green ribbon of parks along Gwynns Falls, and Burch saw the opportunity to revive that idea. “There we were within this great wild park in the city, but one that most folks were afraid to visit. We found huge trees, great vistas, and a feeling of being in the far reaches of the countryside, and we began to promote the idea of a greenway where one could bike, walk, skateboard, or whatever–from the county line to the [planned downtown] ballpark.”

A Partnership for Gwynns Falls

The greenway concept gave rise to a partnership that would eventually include the city, the Trust for Public Land, Baltimore’s Parks and People Foundation, and businesses and civic groups. TPL’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, Rose Harvey, grew up in Baltimore and knew what an important resource an urban greenway could be for a city. “We’ve seen in city after city how greenways can connect neighborhoods, provide for recreation, and encourage renewal,” Harvey says. “When we thought about that stream corridor, those incredible wild parks, and the more than 30 urban neighborhoods they could serve, a greenway just seemed like the right idea.”

Harvey hired one of Burch’s interns, Chris Rogers, to keep the greenway idea moving. In 1992 the partnership announced plans to create the 14-mile-long Gwynns Falls Trail, a series of hike-and-bike paths that would connect a dozen community parks and playgrounds, along with historic sites and forested areas along the stream, with a final segment linking the inland neighborhoods with downtown and the harbor. Two of the parks traversed by the stream and the planned greenway, Leakin Park and adjacent Gwynns Falls Park, together total 1,200 acres.

In cooperation with its partners, TPL commissioned a master plan for a trail that combined existing public parks and rights-of-way with new construction. To supplement public dollars from city, state, and federal transportation funds (secured through the unflagging support of Baltimore Congressman Ben Cardin), TPL raised $3 million from private donors, most of which was used to fill in the missing links in the greenway by acquiring a dozen privately owned parcels. These were turned over to the city.

But money alone could not address one of the trail’s biggest challenges: getting the immediate neighbors of Gwynns Falls to begin using, enjoying, and caring for this rediscovered resource. From the outset TPL involved leaders of community-based groups in creating the master plan, while the Parks and People Foundation took the lead in organizing the Gwynns Falls Trail Council, a diverse group of neighborhood leaders, city officials, artists, naturalists, cyclists, and runners, who serve as the trail’s boosters and stewards. The council’s many projects have included an annual Art on the Trail event; publication of a new, full-color trail map; and the creation of 13 historical markers to be erected in time for opening day–currently planned for June 2005.

“We’ve had festivals, family reunions, and large-scale regional celebrations along the trail,” says Jackie Carrera, executive director of the Parks and People Foundation. Carrera, who has been involved with the project since its earliest days, notes that “one of the greatest successes of the Gwynns Falls Trail project was the partnership that evolved between the city of Baltimore’s various agencies, TPL, Parks and People, and the community.” Kimberly Flowers, director of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks, agrees. “It’s a landmark collaboration–a shining example of how strong partnerships can enhance our environment and improve our quality of life.”

One Greenway, Many Constituencies

Slowly but steadily Baltimoreans are discovering the urban treasure the Gwynns Falls partnership has labored to create. The western seven miles of the trail are already open, hosting a growing number of walkers, runners, and cyclists. The Baltimore Walking Club is preparing for its invitational Volksmarch in June 2005, when more than a thousand hikers from around the nation are expected to walk the Gwynns Falls Trail. And each year for the last three years, hundreds of cyclists have participated in the citywide Tour du Parks, a 32-mile bike tour through Baltimore’s parks and neighborhoods, with the Gwynns Falls Trail as its centerpiece.

“I send countless tourists to the trail,” says Penny Troutner, owner of Light Street Cycles in south Baltimore and a member of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. “They’re always asking me where to ride. In the summer it’s cool in the shade, and they get to see an aspect of the city they couldn’t even imagine.”

Along the now-open western reaches of the trail, mature beeches and tulip poplars form a green wall in summer. Autumn reveals dramatic hills and rock formations. Foxes, great blue herons, and whitetail deer are often seen by hikers. Threading steep, wooded banks above the stream, the packed-gravel trail has become popular with dog owners, power walkers, and romantic couples from nearby neighborhoods.

“It’s such an oasis,” says Maryanne Nobil?, who, with her husband, Jeffrey Johnson, and their dog, Sahji, hikes the path daily. At many points along the path, the only reminder of civilization is the muffled whirr of far-off traffic.

A few miles downstream, the trail reaches five-year-old Leon Day Park, one of the Gwynns Falls partnership’s greatest successes. Before the trail came through, the site was a disused grass lot. Leading the effort to reclaim the space as an integral part of the trail system, TPL sponsored a neighborhood workshop on the park’s design and raised funds to create the park, including a generous donation from the Baltimore Orioles. Named for a hometown star of Negro League baseball, Leon Day Park has become a sports destination for the city, complete with bleachers, lighting for night games, and showers. Basketball courts are in constant use, and hundreds of city youth play baseball and football in league competitions here, with games occasionally interrupted by curious deer.

Park neighbor Betty Hawkins, a member of the Gwynns Falls Trails Council and the unofficial godmother of Leon Day Park, began providing guidance to neighborhood boys more than 20 years ago. Hawkins has a deep understanding of the trouble kids can get in when they lack structured recreation opportunities: of some 60 youths she has nurtured over the years, she says, “I’ve lost about five of them to the street.” She sees Leon Day Park as an opportunity to “teach the children unity through sports and begin raising the standard of the whole community.”

Every year since the park opened, its sports program has expanded; in 2005 a girls softball league will join the roster. Travis Chapman, the park’s volunteer sports director, has set a goal of bringing back city baseball and football teams that long ago moved their games to suburban fields. He has dubbed the plan “RBI”–Reviving Baseball in the Inner City.

A mile farther downstream, a former Police Athletic League building in Lower Gwynns Falls Park is home to the Academy of Success, a free after-school program for children who live in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Community activists Benjamin and Lisa Barnwell, who operate the program, view the new greenway as an important resource for their program. The Barnwells have encouraged parents to get involved in park programs as a way of engaging them in community work. “We’d like to see a lot of the activities we do indoors go outside,” Benjamin Barnwell says. “We’ve talked about tying the trail into our regular schedule of activities.”

To TPL staffer Halle Van der Gaag, the academy is emblematic of how the trail and its parks are bringing together residents who never previously mingled. “Historically, the stream has been a dividing line among neighborhoods and the people who live there. The trail, this park, and our partnership with the academy have changed that by erasing the boundaries, real or imagined.”

As the trail approaches its eastern end, where construction continues, its surroundings become increasingly urban. It crosses streets, vaults across custom-built bridges, and swoops under America’s first railroad bridge, the Carrollton Viaduct. Marked by signs and painted pavement, the trail jogs through streets lined with small factories and classic Baltimore row houses before splitting into two branches. One offers residents of Baltimore’s economically depressed western neighborhoods access by bike or on foot to downtown jobs and stores and to Inner Harbor attractions. The other heads south along the wide Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, at present a disused urban backwater. Planners envision that the trail will help transform this landscape of abandoned buildings and rotting piers into vital public waterfront.

“People want access to water and recreational opportunities within easy reach of where they live and work,” says TPL’s Halle Van der Gaag. “The Gwynns Falls Trail is an integral part of the future of this area. How else could you go birdwatching on your lunch hour and jump in a kayak with your kids before dinner? It’s all here!”

As the trail nears its official completion, no one believes that the work is over. For one thing, TPL is still raising funds to complete its work in Lower Gwynns Falls Park. The trail will need ongoing maintenance, and outreach to nearby neighborhoods must continue if it is to realize its potential as a focus for community renewal.

“There are still whole communities that touch the trail but really don’t know much about it,” says Bill Eberhart, chair of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. Still, he believes that trail use will continue to grow, ultimately even attracting new residents to Baltimore. “It will be heavily utilized,” he predicts. “People will use it to commute. It’ll attract people to the city.”

Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, an early and ardent supporter of the trail, has emerged as one of its most important boosters. “The Gwynns Falls Trail offers a wonderful opportunity for families to get outdoors, hop on a bike, and take in the natural sights right in their own backyards,” he says. If all goes as planned, on National Trails Day, June 4, Mayor O’Malley will preside at the dedication of the completed Gwynns Fall Trail–an idea born more than 15 years ago that has already touched thousands of lives along its 14-mile length.

“No park serves as many purposes and ties a community together as well as a greenway does,” says Peter Harnik, director of TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence. “The Gwynns Falls partners looked at a battered and neglected stream corridor that divided the community and saw that someday it could be a valuable resource that would bring residents together.”

Tom Chalkley is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and illustrator. He first wrote about the Gwynns Falls Trail for this magazine when the trail was being planned, in 1993.

By the Numbers — Gwynns Falls Trail

Length of Gwynns Falls Trail to date, in miles: 14
Estimated number of adult strides needed to cover this distance: 24,640
Number of city neighborhoods along the trail: 30
Number of parks along it: 8
Approximate total acreage of these parks: 2,000
Number of acres by which this total exceeds the size of New York’s Central Park: 1,157
Number of acres by which it exceeds the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: 987
Number of new bridges constructed to build the trail: 8
Number of new parks created to date as part of the trail effort: 1
Additional number of new parks planned: 1
Cost per mile, in dollars, to build the trail and its new parks: 1,000,000
Amount, in dollars, contributed by the Baltimore Orioles to help build Leon Day Park on the trail: 100,000
Annual number of youth baseball and football games at Leon Day Park: 102
Annual number of young people participating in these games: 330
Increase in Baltimore’s civic pride resulting from the new trail and its parks: beyond estimate!