Druid Hill Park, open to Baltimore's many walks of life

THE PEOPLE'S PARK

July 04, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

"There is no subject connected with the growth and prosperity of our City upon which all classes of the community are more nearly unanimous than they are with reference to the necessity for a Park."

-- John H. B. Latrobe, pitching the idea of a public park in the

Baltimore American newspaper, 1859.

Some things never change. More than 130 years later, a diverse crowd of Baltimoreans still believes a park is a necessity of civilized life.

And perhaps no other city-run park symbolizes the spirit of Baltimore more than Druid Hill Park, where people have experienced not only respite but also poignant and sometimes painful life lessons in its 746 lush acres.

It is here that herds of sheep performed the duties now associated with noisy lawn mowers, and Victorian ladies, flappers, World War II soldiers and, later, hippies and black-power militants once strolled.

Today, urban dwellers itching to feel soil between their fingers traipse out to the park to grow fruits and vegetables on rented plots.

Teen-agers come to see and be seen, particularly on weekend evenings, when hundreds of cars line the park streets.

For a few it is a place to release hostilities -- witness last week's shooting death at the park's pool. And for five other people since 1988, it has been the place their lives ended violently.

But these relatively infrequent criminal acts don't discourage blacks, whites, suburbanites, city dwellers and out-of-towners, who still flock to the park and the Baltimore Zoo, toting tots and pushing strollers. Add to this eclectic mix bikers, joggers, walkers and those who just want to catch a cool summer breeze under a giant shade tree, and you have a teeming -- and telling -- microcosm of the city's culture on any given day.

Baltimore residents consider Druid Hill Park, and everything in it, theirs -- as in their playground, their place to get away from the stresses of the city, their own little piece of green earth.

"On weekends, there must be 200,000 automobiles here. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but it is a widely used park," says Rick Preski, a spokesman at Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. While no exact figures are available, Mr. Preski estimates "tens of thousands" of people use the park yearly. "Families pack this park daily," he says.

On a recent Saturday, Karen Hackett lies on a blanket under a tree by the playground. Three of her four children are playing on swings and running around. The fourth, a 10-month-old baby, is asleep, oblivious to her surroundings.

"I'm here on Saturdays and Sundays," says Mrs. Hackett, a security guard. "The kids get to run around, release their tension and run off a lot of energy. And they get to leave me alone! It gives me time to think."

In another part of the park, Cleveland Epps isn't thinking about resting.

Growing up with parents who gardened, Mr. Epps missed tending to fruits and vegetables due to lack of space at his city home. Three years ago, he saw a notice about renting a city plot in the park, and he knew that was the solution.

This time of year, his garden is full of cucumbers, peppers, collard greens, lima beans, sweet potatoes and watermelons.

"I come out here just about every other day," says Mr. Epps, who tends the garden along with his friend Charles Richardson. "It's a hobby. But you also get to eat."

Joan Brown lives in the Catonsville area and never used to visit Druid Hill Park. A friend told her she would enjoy it. She says he was right.

Her three sons are splashing around in the pool. "We're just starting to hang out here," she says, reclining on the lawn, soaking up some rays.

People from all walks of life congregate at Druid Hill Park now, but it was not always such a welcoming place for some. At one time, going to the park meant entering boundaries that were strictly segregated.

"My father used to carry my brother and me to the park all of the time," says 74-year-old Charles Williams. "We used to take the streetcars, which would take us right across the street from the park."

But once there, Mr. Williams remembers he and his brother were puzzled by something.

"We had to walk past the white playground where there were swings and sliding boards and seesaws," he recalls. "My brother and I wanted to go there and play. But when we asked our father, he said we couldn't."

Off-limits to some

Mr. Williams, who is black, was about 8 years old, and it hadn't dawned on him that the playgrounds -- as were all the park facilities at that time -- were segregated. "I was little and I just used to wonder why we couldn't play on the nice playground," he says.

"We would keep walking, about eight more blocks, to get to the black playground," he says. The one, he says, with less $l equipment.

By the time he got to high school, Mr. Williams had learned what segregation was all about. But he never stopped coming to the park. "Druid Hill Park has been my whole life," he says. Anyway, he adds, segregation "was just the way it was back then, and the way it had always been."

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