Fight for woods draws to close

Loyola College to cut much of forest that Woodberry's activists wanted to save

From the cover

December 30, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

The past few years on New Year's Eve, as most of Baltimore caroused, all fireworks, auld lang syne and boozy revelry, a bright-eyed band of idealists packed picnic baskets, buttoned their warmest coats and climbed their hill.

At the crest, with the city's lights glowing below them and a line of trees that have seen hundreds of Decembers at their backs, they raised a glass to the forest - and to hoping against hope that they could stop a deal that would raze much of it for an athletic complex.

But despite years of protests, petitions and wishful midnight toasts, Woodberry's activists lost. Loyola College now owns 50 acres of the forest sandwiched between the neighborhood, the Jones Falls Expressway and Cold Spring Lane.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Dec. 30 editions about Loyola College's plans for land near the Woodberry neighborhood should have stated that a large portion of forest used to be a city landfill. The Sun regrets the errors.

According to college officials, there's not the slightest whiff of a chance that the school won't build the 6,000-seat stadium, athletic fields, offices and parking lots.

"Loyola's committed to this project," says spokesman Mark Kelly. "Unequivocally."

Still, as 2005 draws to a close tomorrow night, the dreamiest and most unwavering of Woodberry's activists will be heading up their hill, possibly for the last time.

Among them will be Jan Danforth, the leader of the save-the-forest movement who came up with the New Year's plan five years ago.

"It's not a fight anymore," the 55-year-old says. "It's just a celebration of the new year and hoping for the best. ... This is basically honoring the woods."

Even at the beginning, when the battle over the forest was intensifying and victory, though hard to picture, was still worth imagining, the New Year's event drew just a fervent few.

Maybe seven people attended that first one. At the event's heyday a few years later, a handful more than that showed.

"How many people are gonna hike up a cold hill when they could be in a warm bar?" Danforth says. "The people that come here are stalwart people."

By the beam of flashlights and lanterns, they hiked, and when they reached their spot, they smoothed blankets and sleeping bags onto the wintry ground.

Someone passed around cheese and crackers. Someone uncorked champagne. Smoke from the spicy Indian incense someone had lit curled into the cold night air.

As the activists watched downtown's fireworks explode over the harbor, Danforth hit play on her boombox, releasing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "Ode to Joy." A love letter of sorts to Earth and a tribute to all creation. How irresistibly appropriate, she thought.

"The one key word for this whole thing is defiance," says Myles Hoenig, who has weathered a few of what the group likes to call "midnight picnics" even though he lives in Waverly, not Woodberry. Hoenig ran for City Council on the Green Party ticket in 2004.

"In a way, it's to show that the land belongs to the people," he says. "And bringing in a new year, it was more or less to say that the fight continues."

Of course, this year, as Loyola all but revs its bulldozers in the distance, all this in the cold light of day seems a bit quixotic, a bit impractical, a bit 1960s. The fight isn't continuing; it's utterly over.

Even some of Woodberry's hardiest activists have signed off on it.

Though Danforth and Hoenig refused, most of their peers shook hands with Loyola over an arrangement whereby the neighbors agree not to sue the school and Loyola promises to preserve some woodland, turn off the stadium lights at 10 p.m., prohibit alcohol and limit outdoor concerts.

Jim Emberger fought hard for the forest. But now, he says, he "grudgingly accepts" Loyola's plans. The midnight picnics, he says, were always futile. And no, he will not be there this New Year's Eve.

"Except to them, personally," he says of the picnic crew, "it was a meaningless protest.

"There was nowhere to go. Any more protesting would have done us no good."

Though the midnight picnic was born out of protest, fighting is no longer its essence, Danforth and others insist.

Woodberry community leader Tracy Brown relishes the serenity of the forest. "Have you ever ended up somewhere and thought, `Wow, I never knew there was anything like this'?" she asks.

It's about celebrating that, Brown says, "because you never know when it won't be there."

The original picnickers are a wistful bunch. Living in what they used to call "their rural paradise in the city," they feel as if it's slipping away. The big television towers and the expressway came first. Then a police station. Apartments that cost much more than their homes are on the way in an old mill. Now the stadium.

Danforth, who has given more than 300 tours of the forest, desperately trying to stir up more passion for it, remembers the exact day she heard it was in jeopardy: Dec. 3, 1998.

The news didn't just flip her out - it changed her. It forced her to shake off the cloak of shyness she wore for years and reveal a brazen activist's persona. "I was timid and intimidated by wealthy and highly educated people," she said. "Now I'm not."

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