'Backwater' park becomes a Baltimore gem Ballplayers, hikers

'Where did all these people come from?'

August 17, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

It's a Sunday afternoon at Carroll Park, and Southwest Baltimore has come out to play. A dozen senior citizens hike to Mount Clare Mansion. Teams from Sid's Tavern, the Shortstop Bar and other watering holes battle on the softball fields. The Little League diamonds are so full of youngsters that late arrivals have to design makeshift home plates in the outfield.

On the park's Washington Boulevard side, people are selling arts and crafts, flowers, toys, and hardware. Carroll Park has a new flea market, 16 vendors and growing.

"Sometimes," says Rob Green, 30, who chats with the Little Leaguers as he oversees the flea market, "you see the cars come by the park, and the drivers stop and say: 'Where did all these people come from?' "

Carroll Park -- one of Baltimore's oldest, biggest and most-obscure public green spaces -- is experiencing a surge of interest not seen since the days when the nearby B&O Roundhouse was home to a railroad, not a museum.

At a time when the city's developers and politicians have focused their attention east of the Inner Harbor, community groups are busy polishing a forgotten gem of Southwest Baltimore.

In the past two years, the park's recreation center has been transformed into a thriving Police Athletic League. The children of Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking immigrants have made the once-empty Bayard Street playground busy again.

By the end of this summer, Carroll will have welcomed the flea market, two Disney-sponsored weekend movie showings and the World Fest carnival -- all new to a park that first opened to the public in 1888.

In recent weeks, the Department of Recreation and Parks has added to the momentum, launching a much-awaited planning effort to give Carroll a new look for the 21st century.

The new master plan, expected within two years, will guide how the city spends the $1 million from a 1996 bond bill dedicated to improvements in the roughly 180-acre park.

"This park is beautiful, it's enormous, and it's a backwater that few Baltimoreans know is here," says Pamela F. Charshee, executive director of the Carroll Park Foundation. "Every other city in America would love to have a place like this near its center, but it seems that only recently are people waking up to its possibilities."

Carroll's location has been a blessing and a curse. It sits at the southwestern edge of hardscrabble Pigtown along a section of Monroe Street that police call a drug-trafficking corridor. Two years ago, the shooting of four young men during a Sunday afternoon pickup football game in the park scared residents so much that several, in interviews with The Sun, vowed never to set foot in Carroll again.

But Carroll's crime troubles seemed to galvanize community groups and the Washington Village/Pigtown Village Center -- the neighborhood arm of Baltimore's $100 million federal empowerment zone. The center's staff stepped up efforts to make the park an attraction for residents as well as businesses, shoppers and tourists.

Hopes based on location

Those hopes, too, are based on location: Interstate 95's Washington Boulevard exit is a block away, and the Inner Harbor is a five-minute drive east.

The new Ravens stadium stands close enough for residents to worry about football fans parking in the park.

Last year, as Baltimore police increased their presence in Carroll, skeptical residents began to notice joggers and bicyclists -- some women -- in the park alone. In June, Disney and a cable company, as part of a promotion to win subscribers, drew more (( than 100 people for two consecutive nights of movies on a giant screen set up near the field house.

"The way things were two years ago, I'm not sure you could have gotten people to the park at night, but this brought out neighbors we hadn't seen in ages," says Bruce Hayes, 49, of Pigtown, who took his grandson to the movies. "It reminded me of the old drive-ins, except there were no cars and no back seats."

German festival

Hayes says he would like to see summer movies join the park's growing list of traditions. A German cultural festival has been held there every August for 10 years. The park's Little League is so popular that some parents from Baltimore County have tried to enroll their children. While most city softball leagues are in decline, Carroll's Sunday league is full, and the annual summer tournament has "too many entrants," says organizer Stuart Satosky.

"A lot of the players are people who grew up around here and like to come back to the old stomping grounds," says Satosky, 52, a longtime Pigtown property owner who pitches and plays second base for a Sunday league team. "And this park is about as nice as it gets in the inner city."

But the high hopes for the park's future lie in drawing tourists. For out-of-towners, the chief attraction is the park's highest point, Mount Clare Mansion, once the hilltop home of Charles Carroll the Barrister, framer of the Maryland Constitution.

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