When traffic's away, city will play

A stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway opens to the public as part of a celebration of the waterway below.

Maryland Journal

September 19, 2005|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Gina Clay drives down the Jones Falls Expressway every day, but it took her two years to figure out that "Jones Falls" was not a pretty but essentially meaningless name. "I said, `What river?'" she recounted yesterday, shortly after laying eyes on the brown, rippling water for the first time.

The expressway's name, as it happens, isn't just a phony attempt to bring a whiff of nature to aggravated drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Jones Falls runs along and under the JFX and is part of a 58-square-mile watershed that local environmentalists think is worthy of love and celebration.

And celebrate they do, for one Sunday every September. When the Jones Falls Watershed Association closed six miles of highway yesterday for the eighth annual Jones Falls Valley Celebration, nearly 4,000 people arrived on foot, bikes, skateboards, scooters and in-line skates. They kayaked and canoed, raced on bikes and by foot, listened to music, and leaned over the side of the road to gawk at the whispering waterway.

They also did what is normally unthinkable: strolled down the ramps and along the northbound lanes of the expressway as if they were taking a walk through the countryside.

"Man, this is fantastic," said Dan Owens, after biking along the stretch of highway he takes to work every day. "It's great seeing things that aren't in a blur. The nature element, the trees. ... You're able to take it in."

That sentiment was echoed by one visitor after another, many of whom are more accustomed to looking at taillights than nature as they commute on the highway that runs from the Inner Harbor to Pennsylvania. It was a thrill to see the pastoral underbelly of the city, they said, and walking down a major expressway - a place usually associated with frustration - was just plain cool.

"Guys, we're sitting on the highway right now. This is crazy," Kathleen Curtis said as she and her husband and their three children ate a lunch in the passing lane.

Lock Curtis, her husband, said he can see the waterway from the office where he sells insurance, but he rarely stops to appreciate it. "Ninety-nine percent of the time I look at that water, I'm in a rush to do something," he said. "It's nice to relax."

Jones Falls is indeed a soothing piece of the country in the middle of the city, but it's also extremely sensitive, said Halle Van der Gaag, the executive director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association. "Everything drains into the stream," from farm waste to everyday fertilizers to oil, coolant and other automobile pollution, she said. Those pollutants end up in the Chesapeake Bay, she said, which is why caring for the waterway is so critical.

The association plants protective trees along the river banks and fishes thousands of bags of trash out of the stream every year. In addition, once a year, the organization throws this party on six ordinarily loathed miles of highway.

Yesterday's event began at 8 a.m. when 244 runners set out on the five-mile race course. The day also featured a bike race and performances by the bands Mostly Mortal Wombat and Crawdaddies. Organizations, such as The Baltimore Bird Club and Trout Unlimited, set up booths. Sunny's Surplus donated canoes and kayaks, and those eager to get a closer view of the water launched their boats at Robert E. Lee Park and followed a course that proved arduous even for the most experienced paddlers.

There was also a rubber frog race. About 450 people paid $5 each to sponsor a frog and rooted for the little green creatures as they bobbed along the water. Shortly after noon, the green army swept around a bend in the river and crossed the finish line near Cold Spring Lane.

David Symer, who was there with his two daughters, stood in the middle of a crowd as the frogs approached. "It highlights the fact that the river goes along and under the highway for so long. It's beautiful. People don't normally see it," he said.

People around him broke into cheers. Skaters whizzed by. The sun shown down through the trees along the banks and onto the river. There was no road rage. No cars.

"They should consider doing this monthly," Symer said. "Or weekly."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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