With help, the Oval may regain past glory Residents, group, city try to restore meadow

March 14, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

If you're a kid and live in the Franklintown or Rosemont neighborhoods of West Baltimore and want to play a pickup baseball game, one of the few places you can go without getting scolded is here: a 1,000-foot-wide grassy meadow in Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park.

Julian Thomas Jr. used to come here in the summer to play ball, fly kites and search for crawfish under rocks in the cool waters of Gwynns Falls.

Now 44, Thomas still comes to the meadow occasionally to shoot baskets -- a little exercise to stave off the effects of middle age.

"It used to be the place to go to play with your friends," Thomas said. "We'd go into the woods and throw a rope over a tree limb and make a tire swing. Then you'd walk along the streamside, take off your shoes and socks and put your feet in the water. It was just a lot of fun."

Since Thomas' youth, the meadow, officially known as the Bloomingdale Oval, has fallen on hard times, an apparent victim of neglect by the city. Remaining baseball backstops and basketball backboards are rusted, broken bottles litter parts of the site and two broken picnic tables mar the view. Only one clearly defined baseball diamond remains; the rest have been claimed by weeds.

But the first step in changing that is a 10 a.m. meeting tomorrow at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, 800 Poplar Grove Ave., where community residents will help decide how to use the soon-to-be-renovated space.

A private group has $50,000 to begin improvements, and hopes to match that with public and private funds.

However, city planners estimate it might cost $500,000 to $1 million to make all the improvements necessary to restore the field to its former glory, including adding lights, bleachers, restrooms and drinking fountains -- all amenities removed over the years.

Despite its condition, local residents say the historic Oval still is used, especially in warm weather by a high school baseball team, basketball enthusiasts and area senior citizens who flock there to play horseshoes and cards.

But a renovated park would provide a much-needed increase in recreational activities in an area where Little League baseball hasn't been played in several years, local residents say.

"We want the young people to have somewhere to go other than Poplar Grove and Edmondson Avenue where the druggies hangout," said Betty Hawkins, vice president of the Franklintown Road Improvement Association.

"Now, they throw balls up against people's houses because they don't really have a place to play," said Mighonette "Minnie" McKesson, a member of the association.

Interest in the site goes beyond the immediate area because of its historic nature.

The Olmsted brothers, the landscape architects who laid out Baltimore's park system, "really advocated the preservation of that meadow," said M. Edward Shull, a past president of the Friends of Olmsted Parks.

Several groups are vying to make it their home, including Carver Vocational High School's varsity baseball team, Police Athletic League baseball and soccer teams and the 50-member Baltimore Cricket Club.

"It's perfect for our needs," said Noel Godfrey, cricket club president.

"When I first saw it a year ago, I thought 'Why isn't this space used more?' " said David Dows, a Department of Recreation and Parks planner who is coordinating city plans for the site. " It's an obvious question in a city that needs large open, green areas."

Even with dilapidated fixtures, it's easy to see potential in the low-lying site, which generally is about 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding rowhouse neighborhoods.

The meadow is almost encircled by trees, and it's far enough from houses to allow athletes to make noise and hit fly balls without being a nuisance.

But for neighbors with long memories, it is a bittersweet scene. Several residents say the city began neglecting the meadow after African-Americans moved in and whites fled.

"When I moved down here, it was integrated, and they used to have the bleachers, the restrooms, a water fountain and it was really nice down there," said McKesson, who is African-American. "But once it was all-black, it was neglected by the city."

Bloomingdale Oval, named for a nearby street and its egg shape, is 15 acres, but the site to be developed for playing fields is considerably smaller.

The Oval will be a feature of the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail, a recreational greenway stretching from the park to Middle Branch Park that will cost $7.5 million. It is being built by a partnership that includes the Trust for Public Land and the Parks and People Foundation. Work on the first phase of the trail is to begin later this year. The Oval, in the 900 block of Franklintown Road, is at the beginning of the second phase.

Parks and People has $50,000 for Oval improvements, which it and the Trust for Public Land plan to match with contributions from public and private contributions.

The $50,000 came from money the Reebok Corp. paid to settle charges brought by attorneys general in all 50 states, accusing the corporation of overcharging consumers for athletic shoes between 1990 and 1994. Maryland nonprofit groups received $150,000 from the settlement to go for recreational uses.

The city will make the final decisions about improvements and how the park is used.

In any case, Julian Thomas says he can't wait to take his 3-year-old son there.

"We're definitely going to go fishing there this summer," he said.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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