Park plan would honor 2 black tennis stars

January 20, 1995|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

A major overhaul of Druid Hill Park unveiled yesterday would restore the park's old "Negro" tennis courts as a memorial to Althea Gibson and the late Arthur Ashe -- champions who learned the game when Jim Crow laws prevented blacks and whites from playing together.

The tennis memorial is part of a master plan to end years of neglect at Druid Hill, which was designed in 1860 and, with more than 1 million visitors annually, is one of the city's most popular parks.

Other proposals include restoring the Sisters Pools and the surrounding meadows and woodlands, expanding and improving the Conservatory gardens, and replanting the Promenade tree rows and restoring the tower at Druid Lake.

Gennady Schwartz, chief of capital development for the recreation and parks department, said Druid Hill had been neglected too long. "At some point we underfunded the city's large parks; we concentrated too much on the small parks and little playgrounds," he said, as the city's Design Advisory Panel reviewed the master plan.

Mr. Schwartz said it's difficult to assess the cost of the plan -- which should be presented to the city Planning Commission next month -- because the blueprint's call for correction of drainage problems could be expensive.

"We don't know even the span of the problem," he said. "Some of the drainage problems are caused by the zoo, some of it's just deteriorated 19th century drainage-ways that have never been rebuilt or fixed."

The Baltimore Zoo occupies about 180 of Druid Hill Park's 740 acres. The city leases the land to the state which in turn leases it to the Baltimore Zoological Society.

Drainage and soil-erosion problems could affect the water quality of the Jones Falls stream channel, Mr. Schwartz said. The master plan calls for rehabilitation of several drainage channels and planting vegetation to stabilize drainage courses.

Mr. Schwartz said discussions with zoo officials about working together with the parks department to solve the drainage problems would continue. He said initial projects such as the tennis courts renovation might begin next year with $500,000 in state funds.

"The tennis courts will be rebuilt as a tournament-level area and memorialized for two very important African-American tennis players who played on those courts at some points in their careers," said Patricia M. O'Donnell, a landscape architecture consultant.

In 1957, Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win at Wimbledon; she won the U.S. Open in 1958. In 1968, Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open; seven years later he became the first black man to win a Wimbledon singles title.

Ms. O'Donnell developed the master plan for the Department of Recreation of Parks, which two years ago began working toward overhaul of Druid Hill Park by pulling together a 30-member advisory committee and holding a series of meetings with the community.

Mr. Schwartz said he was surprised when African-Americans attending the meetings began expressing their anger at the deteriorated conditions of the only areas they were allowed to use during segregation. "People remembered how they used to come to the park and how they played."

The master plan also includes transforming the area where the old Negro pool is located into a place for meetings. Mr. Schwartz said completing all the work in the master plan would take a combination of government and private money.

Another proposal in the master plan would place gates at the four park entrances so the facility can be closed at night to combat vandalism and illegal dumping.

Other proposals include rebuilding the park's pedestrian paths and making them accessible to the disabled, improving street crossings to the park, developing paths for joggers and bicyclists, and redesigning parking lots to handle more vehicles.

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