Forest Park turns 100 -- quietly

Mark Miller

March 24, 1992|By Mark Miller

FOREST PARK brings to mind big rambling homes adorned with stained-glass windows and wide, wrap-around porches that look out onto hedge-covered lawns and tree-shaded streets crisscrossed with foot paths named Towanda and Mohawk.

One might also think of a high school whose alumni include Spiro Agnew ('37), Judge Hillary Caplan ('53), movie director and producer Barry Levinson ('60) and developer Victor Frenkil, whose construction company built the new Forest Park High School in 1980.

My father grew up in Forest Park on Main Avenue. He moved there in 1927, graduated from the high school four months behind the future vice president and read about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan while lounging on his front porch. That was in August 1945, when Forest Park has just passed the half-century mark.

This year it turns 100, a fact lost on my father and most of the current residents of Forest Park. Last year, when Roland Park turned 100, they put up a big sign and threw a party. But so far as I know, no Forest Park centennial celebrations are in the offing -- a reflection, no doubt, of Forest Park's own unique history and present circumstances.

Like Roland Park, Forest Park was planned around mass transit, specifically, streetcar lines that developers were extending from downtown Baltimore out to the rural fringe. Frank H. Calloway, prosperous and politically well-connected, was one of them. In 1892 he bought 32 acres of the John S. Gittings estate and financed the Walbrook, Gwynn Oak and Powhatan Electric Railway, which made its debut two years later.

North Walbrook, as Calloway's suburban venture was called initially, became Forest Park in 1901. It was a name taken from "The Forest," the estate of Jesse Slingluff. A 1906 map of Baltimore shows the Slingluff estate, along with William Ortwine's "Liberty Lawn," John S. Gittings' "Ashburton" and other estates slated for subdivision and development.

By the late 1920s, much of Calloway's "long stretches of flat, daisy-covered fields" had been turned into one of Baltimore's most desirable suburban neighborhoods, replete with large, comfortable homes, tree-shaded streets and charming footpaths.

And while Towanda and Mohawk, the trees and the rambling fTC post-Victorians are still there, Forest Park today is much like it was when the Rev. Richard Gerhard described it in a 1980 Sun article: "This is still a lovely area, but it has two faces. It's becoming a dumping ground for everything from drug dealers to absentee landlords, and a lot of people are living in very poor conditions."

Now, as then, Forest Park suffers from a split personality: 60 percent of its residents are renters, well-kept and dilapidated properties stand in close proximity, the criminal and the law-abider live next to each other and the merchants of the Liberty-Garrison commercial hub spruce up their storefronts amid blight and crime.

"We've been able to get things done as a coalition," says Joseph Henley, vice president of the Forest Park Civic Association, referring to the association's umbrella organization, the Greater Northwest Community Coalition. "We pulled together to get the Garrison-Liberty Heights area declared urban renewal. The city has spent $500,000 in improvements."

Still, he laments the fact that a bank recently moved farther west and remembers his days as a delivery boy for Read's in the 1940s, when the commercial district was much more vibrant. Eleanor Wilcox, secretary of the Dorchester Community Association, recalls bygone days, too, when she'd walk home from late shows at the old Ambassador Theater without fear.

Many blame the malaise on the middle-class flight to the counties. Whites fled in the late 1950s through the late 1960s. Blacks followed -- and are still following. Both left single-family dwellings that landlords converted to apartments.

Whatever the cause or causes, all agree that Forest Park is not the neighborhood it was when Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt conducted services at the old Beth Tfiloh, when the genteel ladies of the Women's Literary Club met at the Pratt Library at Garrison and Calloway, when young Barry Levinson paid 50 cents to watch Saturday matinees at the Forest, when Eleanor Wilcox could stroll down Liberty Heights after midnight.

Still, though it's a bit tattered, Forest Park enters its second century proud of its heritage and recent civic accomplishments. But don't look for banners or fireworks. This centennial, it appears, will be decidedly low-key.

Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.

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