Heart of a city

Druid Hill Park, a place of much history and many memories, turns 150

September 04, 2010

I had biked no more than 10 yards into Druid Hill Park one Saturday morning when I met a white-tailed deer. The deer bolted. My heart jolted. I had recorded another park memory.

Druid Hill Park, all 745 acres of it, attracts an impressive collection of human and animal life. This fall marks the 150th anniversary of the park, and many celebrations are planned. The Friends of Druid Hill Park, a volunteer group dedicated to maintaining and reinvigorating the park, has scheduled a number of events in October, including tours, sports festivals, a tree planting day and a gala at the Mansion House.

Recently, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum mounted a small but impressive exhibit tracing how integral the park was to Baltimore's African-American life. When I viewed the exhibit, I was struck by how the history of the park mirrors the nation's history of race relations. The land that much of the park occupies was once called Auchentorlie, whose grounds were tended by slaves. The park was "open to all races" in 1860 but mingling was discouraged — even outlawed — with separate swimming pools and tennis courts set up for blacks and whites. After some protests, including an integrated tennis match in 1948 that got tennis players arrested, the racial barriers were struck down after "separate but equal" facilities were ruled illegal.

Nowadays, the park still draws both blacks and whites — or to use the descriptor I once heard on the park's basketball court, "a salt and pepper" crowd. That was directed at me some years ago when another Baltimore Sun reporter and I visited the court for a feature piece we were writing about the city's outdoor games. As newcomers, we were greeted by the court regulars with some suspicion. Later, one of the players said he had pegged us — a white guy and a black guy — as police. My then-colleague Bill Rhoden has since moved on to The New York Times, where he is a sports columnist. I have migrated to the park's vegetable gardens, called City Farms, where I spend my spare time working the ground and taking in park experiences. Like a lot of Druid Hill regulars, I have collected a trove of personal park moments. Here are a few:

Parks are sylvan spots, and Druid Hill, a landscape crafted in part by Howard Daniels and John H.B. Latrobe, has some of the oldest forest growth in Maryland. Rarely do you see people climbing the trees, but one weekend in 1999 I watched, agape, as men scampered up the tall trees just north of the reservoir. I had happened upon the annual competition organized by members of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. The competition, I learned later, moves around to locations in Maryland and Virginia.

Watching made me nervous; I have a thing about heights. Yet I was fascinated. Bells had been placed in the tops of six trees. Contestants were timed as they scaled the trees and rang the bells. If, on their journey to a tree top, they made an unsafe move, or if something fell from their tool belts, they were disqualified. Here in the center of a city, I was watching men swing in the trees.

There are many monuments in the park, but the one that draws bagpipers is the statue of William Wallace. Every August on the Sunday closest to the 23rd of the month, members of the St. Andrew's Society of Baltimore gather at the west end of Druid Lake. One Sunday I came upon them. The pipers piped and quilts fluttered as men marched to the statue of Wallace to pay tribute to the Scottish patriot who was tortured and killed by the English in August 1305. Braveheart was remembered in Druid Hill.

Music, some made by man, some by nature, is a part of park life. The singing group Dru Hill takes its name from the park. During the summer, two major music events, the Caribbean Festival and the Stone Soul Picnic, take over the southeastern end of the park. Fences and booths go up, and roads are closed to most vehicles as ball fields become performance spaces. Falling as they do at the height of the harvest time, these festivals presented logistical problems for me and other gardeners trying to get to our crops. But over time solutions — issuing special passes, developing a back route through the woods — have resulted in peaceful co-existence between musicians and farmers. Moreover, our body clocks are different. By noon, when most musicians are just limbering up, most gardeners have been weeding for hours and are fleeing the heat of the sun.

Nature produces its own melodies. I have been whistled at by a groundhog, a noise that was supposed to scare me. Birdsong is common. One of my scariest melodic moments occurred late one fall afternoon when I heard a high-pitched song, looked up and saw a huge red-tailed hawk perched on a pole a few feet above me. It took me a minute or two to realize his sharp eyes were fixed on field mice, not on this lone field hand.

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