Re-envisioning the Jones Falls

ON THE BAY

Shift: After years of neglect and decline, the stream that gave birth to Baltimore is getting more favorable attention. A celebration of the historic watercourse is scheduled this weekend.

September 17, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"I have come to bury the Jones Falls, not to praise it."

-- Henry Barto Jacobs, 1915

"It is our hope that upon discovering the Jones Falls, Baltimore will respect it as Paris respects the Seine, London the Thames, Budapest the Danube."

-- Michael Beer, 1998

THESE ARE notable bookends to the century, proving progress can occur in the most macadamized environments.

Jacobs' "praise" came at the 1915 dedication of the Fallsway, built over giant tubes encasing two miles of Baltimore's central stream valley in brick and darkness.

Beer's comment, 83 years later, came at the first Jones Falls Valley Celebration; a second one will be held tomorrow and Sunday.

Celebration No. 2, at several sites along the valley, will feature kayaking and canoeing, an 8K run, rock climbing, history and nature walks, food, concerts and more.

Information: 410-261-3517.

There is also an extraordinary photographic exhibit this month that offers striking and surprising views of the Jones Falls.

This millennial re-envisioning of the old, beleaguered watercourse comes at a fertile time, when Smart Growth has people rethinking cities as alternatives to suburban sprawl and wondering if the meaning of life can lie elsewhere than automobile commutes.

It also complements environmentalists' refocusing on stewardship and restoration of our back yards, as part of saving the Earth.

"Jones Falls" today still conjures in most minds the expressway, Interstate 83, not the stream. But the stream gave birth to the city and nurtured it.

"Baltimore Town" grew from "Jones Town," settled by David Jones in 1661. The Jones Falls was the early town's major source of drinking water.

It bore ships as far inland as Calvert and Lexington streets, and at its mouth, around what is now the Inner Harbor's Pier 6, wooden vessels let freshwater kill off marine worms that ate their hulls. Upstream, through Hampden and above, the tumbling stream powered grain and textile mills.

But Baltimore's growth was not kind to its vital central artery. Pollution grew so bad the Jones Falls became a threat to public health (typhoid) and safety (catching fire).

By the time the lower stream was buried, cities like Baltimore considered it almost uncivilized to have open waterways. Many smaller streams -- Sumwalt's Run, Tiffany Run, Rutter's and Schroeder's runs and Gorsuch Creek -- exist now in the city only as subterranean storm drains.

There were visionaries, like famed landscape designers Frederick and John Olmsted (New York's Central Park, Roland Park). The Olmsteds had recommended that much of the Jones Falls Valley be preserved in a series of meandering, scenic parks.

But the city ignored them, building on top of much of the rest of the stream corridor with the Jones Falls Expressway in the 1960s.

The growing annual celebration represents a fundamental shift for the Jones Falls, even though the stream remains relatively polluted, depauperate of fish and a source of trash when storms flush its watershed into the harbor.

Nothing gives more of a sense of the stream's potential than the wonderful exhibit of 45 photographs, taken by 19 photographers, on view this month at Cross Keys.

It happened after Dave Harp, a leading Baltimore nature photographer, was approached in July by Beer.

Beer, co-chairman of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, has done wonders to create a community nature trail along Stony Run, the tributary to the Jones Falls that runs by his backyard in the Evergreen neighborhood.

Harp mobilized other members of the local chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers. The results are well worth seeing from an artistic standpoint alone.

Tom Guidera III's shot of a massive stone wall, running thousands of feet along the stream just above North Avenue, overhung with lush vegetation, would draw votes to designate the Jones Falls as an official Maryland Scenic River.

"The fascinating thing," Guidera says, "is you stand in the same place I took that, and turn your camera 90 degrees, and the picture is ugliness, eroded banks, bare tree roots and plastic trash."

The photography, all of which is on sale for $200 to $500, ranges from panoramas and hazy, pinhole camera shots to digitally reworked pieces.

A color shot of striped and colored rocks in the streambed by J. Brough Schamp is Japanese in its elegance and simplicity. Another Schamp shot comes close to making blue plastic caught in tree limbs artistically pleasing.

There are snow scenes and delicate tracks of wildlife in sandy stream edges from the upper Jones Falls (it supports trout out in Baltimore County).

Two of my favorites are Mike McGovern's photograph of the lovely curving brickwork beneath the North Avenue bridge, juxtaposed with ellipses of shining light the bridge carves from sky and stream; also Peggy Fox's juxtaposition of the beautiful horseshoe-shaped falls around 29th Street with this graffiti:

"Dedicated 2 all those who come here to get away."

You will never see the Jones Falls the same again. But does it have a future beyond festivals?

It does if the city and state support and expand efforts in the watershed, like the Woodberry neighborhood's struggle to preserve its urban forest, and like citizen efforts to stop the erection of blighting billboards.

If the Jones Falls is made accessible year-round to walkers, bikers, climbers, bird-watchers, to all who seek small pockets of solitude, then it will be resurrected.

There might even be a repeat of the June 1914 banquet held by Mayor James Preston inside the new tunnel burying the stream. This 21st-century feast would celebrate its return to the light.

The photographic exhibit is in the central court at Cross Keys, open weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekdays noon to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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