New park boss feels at home Natural: Michael J. Baker grew up working to better Baltimore's parks. Now he's in charge of them.

November 12, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Each time Baltimore knocks down another forsaken block of rowhouses, Michael J. Baker, the city's new chief of parks, wonders if the vacant lots left behind will become his burden.

"There are 40,000 vacant lots in the city," said Baker, a 19-year veteran of city recreation and parks work who took over the top parks job Oct. 15. "Every time they demolish a house, does that lot automatically become parkland?"

The housing department says only about 11,000 abandoned properties exist, and most of them are either privately owned or under the purview of the Department of Public Works, which absorbed Recreation and Parks a year ago. Baker, 41, would like for most vacant lots to be taken over by neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations.

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"Part of my job will be determining which properties should stay in our [6,500-acre] inventory, what is of the most historical and ecological significance," said Baker, an expert on birds who spent a decade managing the system's Middle Branch Park on the South Baltimore waterfront. "Beyond our nine major parks, our priorities will be to help the smaller parks, in the 1-to-4-acre range. Many can become sitting parks or community vegetable gardens."

Baker, who has a degree in biology from Pennsylvania State University, is starting at a salary of $49,000 after being selected from 35 candidates in a nationwide search. He will supervise 50 employees and oversee an operating and capital budget of nearly $7.9 million.

"I've watched Mike come up through the system," said Tom Overton, chief of Recreation and Parks. "He was the unanimous choice of the selection committee I put together, and our employees were glad to see someone make it from their own back yard."

While parks funding is significantly lower than in the past, many of the headaches of the department -- such as grading roads and cutting grass -- were lifted in the merger with public works.

Being relieved of the more tedious jobs, said Baker, will allow parks to plan more and to increase educational programming.

"The challenge will be to see if we can get communities to come up to the plate and work with us," he said of partnerships with nonprofits and community groups that will be necessary for a vital parks program in the 21st century.

An example is the renovation of a rubble landfill along Waterview Avenue near the Hanover Street Bridge into a wildlife park. Baker managed the project.

"We got together folks from the Living Classroom, Parks and People, the Trust for Public Land, recreation and parks and the city planning department," Baker said. "Then, we hired kids from Westport and Cherry Hill to plant trees and build an observation boardwalk and turned it into an amazing wildlife area. We've already seen birds there, like Tennessee warblers and bobolinks, that folks said wouldn't return to the city for 20 years."

Concern for security

Some immediate changes will be fairly cheap and simple, such as improving park lighting and prohibiting access from Wetheredsville Road into Carrie Murray Outdoor Education Center at Leakin Park. That would limit visits by people prone to shooting street signs or dumping murder victims.

Other projects due in the coming year are more in keeping with the role that parks will play in the future, such as the Gwynns Falls Trail, a 4.5-mile hiking and biking circuit through West Baltimore's most rugged terrain.

The trail is to open by late spring and Baker -- interviewing candidates for trail manager this week -- expects to hire four park security officers to patrol it. Much of the money for the trail, including $500,000 in start-up money, has come through state Project Open Space grants.

"You have one incident over there and that trail will be sunk," Baker said of the plan to hire the first park security in two decades. "We want communities along the trail to adopt parts of it and be our eyes and ears. We've found that people will protect our parks -- people protect what they love. My Aunt Virginia always said, 'When there's people around, crime goes away.' "

An aunt's wisdom

Ah, yes, Aunt Virginia -- the larger-than-life, guiding spirit behind Baker's climb from a 5-year-old city playground volunteer to the chief of all city parks. The late Virginia Baker, a recreation department legend who oversaw frog-jumping and hog-calling contests out of a City Hall office called Adventures in Fun, was never at a loss for sage advice and dispensed it freely to her nephew.

"I grew up in recreation and then moved over to parks," he said, remembering times his aunt dressed him as a clown and paraded him down Howard Street to promote bond issues for recreation and parks. "Virginia taught me never to be afraid of making a fool of yourself for a good cause."

Asked what his aunt would make of his big job promotion, Baker said: "Virginia's up in heaven right now eating M&Ms and jumping up and down saying: 'We finally got our boy in there!' "

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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