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To stave off paving, Annapolis attorney planted a paradise

Justice SystemRailway TransportationEarth DayBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.United States Naval Academy

Two decades ago, when lawyer Robert Waldman and his family moved to the Annapolis neighborhood of Homewood, there was talk of converting the old railroad right-of-way across from his house into some kind of thruway.

An extra lane to take the traffic pressure off West Street, which ran parallel several blocks away; a route for a shuttle bus from downtown Annapolis to Westfield Annapolis Mall — city officials were regularly talking about ways to pave the four-block long stretch of grass that bisected the old neighborhood of mixed-generation families.

So Waldman began to plant trees.

First, some redbuds. Some apple trees, a peach tree, crepe myrtles. And every winter, a new evergreen that had begun, balled and burlaped and as heavy as lead, as the family Christmas tree. There are 21 of those evergreens now.

He figured that if the stretch of ground started to look like a park, officials would be less likely to pave it.

"I thought that if it looked like a park, people would protect it. That turned out to be right," said Waldman.

Waldman, with the neighborhood supporting him, then negotiated with the city to create a narrow, paved bike/walking path that would pretty much preclude anybody from turning the space into a road.

Today, it is Poplar Park, named for the street it divides, and Homewood residents treat it like, well, a thruway. There are cyclists and runners and people walking to work downtown or to church. There are dog-walkers and babies in strollers and toddlers on their way to a playground and little kids with backpacks walking to nearby Germantown Elementary School.

Early fears that it might become a "crime highway" that linked the city's poorest neighborhoods with Homewood were replaced with the understanding that because the park and the path had such heavy use, it actually became less of a crime highway.

"The park and the path treat everybody equally. It has done more to integrate the neighborhood because of the incredible variety of people who use it," he said.

Fred Paone, the Annapolis City alderman who represents Waldman’s neighborhood, said Waldman saw a problem and rather than wait for the gears of local government to grind, he just started to plant.

“And we are all better off for it,” said Paone. A Republican to Waldman the Democrat, Paone is also a prosecutor, while Waldman is a public defender.

“Poplar Park would not be the same without Bob’s efforts in planting and developing the beauty of the place. The city would be much better off if we had more people like him.”

The City of Annapolis cuts the grass, but Waldman is out there most weekends, weeding, pruning and generally cleaning up. He spends more time working in Poplar Park than he does in his own ambitious gardens.

"It is a great way to be out there on a sunny day and talk to people," said the man who is called "the Mayor of Homewood" by his neighbors.

He is past 60 now, but shows no sign of a gardening slowdown.

"The longer you do it," he says with a shrug, "the longer you can do it."

He negotiates with Baltimore Gas and Electric on the selection and placement of trees and about the pruning of them because of the power lines that run above the park.

He might get a little money from the city or a little Earth Day grant money; and he buys more trees. He calls on the Naval Academy for a bunch of midshipmen to help with the heavy work in spring. They come dressed in boots and camouflage and toss bags of mulch around like bed pillows.

He has planted butterfly bushes here and there and Louisiana iris in the wet spots. There are daylily beds, and the wildflowers have arrived and they seem to be happy. But he has given up on perennial beds because they require so much work. Trees are best in public spaces.

His new goal is to remove the invasive vines from around the thorny berry shrubs that provide food and protected shelter for birds. He is hoping he can hire some goats to do the job.

He needs more than a few goats. Some of his neighbors pitch in on Earth Day, too. But he needs them year round.

"It is pretty well planted now," said Waldman, a student of, and a believer in, public green spaces and what they do for communities.

"What it needs is maintenance. But this is the problem you have with all 'commons' — the ocean, the bay, the green spaces. Whose job is it to take care of it?"

Waldman hopes that he can "subdivide" the park into parcels and get five or six neighbors to volunteer to take care of that small portion.

"This thing can't be the crusade of one crazy guy," he said.

Poplar Park is Waldman's contentment. You can tell he is happy when he wades into it with his over-size cart and his gardening fork and emerges with a mountain of debris. But it is slowly breaking his heart, too.

When the Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad laid down the tracks so long ago, they probably used an herbicide commonly known as "Spike." It appears to have collected in the depressions where the tracks were laid, and because it has "a half-life of forever," he said, it is killing his trees.

The tree he planted for his daughter Susannah's first Christmas more than 20 years ago died when the tree's roots finally found their way into the track bed, and the poison. There is nothing he can do but plant more trees.

Waldman had a vision two decades ago: Plant trees to make it look like a park and it will become a park.

He was right, because that's exactly what happened.

Editor's note: The writer lives in the same Annapolis neighborhood as Robert Waldman and has watched his Poplar Park gardens grow for many years. She now feels like she needs to be one of the people who volunteers to care for a small part of it.

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