As a community member and physician, I find the historical narrative of Baltimore City’s decisions pertaining to the communities surrounding Druid Hill Park deeply disappointing. While many know of the racism of the park’s past — the segregated swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds — many do not know the politics and history behind the construction of the Druid Hill Expressway. The story of the expressway’s construction is a narrative of racism and corruption, that, like an arrow shot from the past, inflicts damage on our most vulnerable populations today.
Familiar to today’s residents as the north-south route that includes Druid Hill Avenue, McCulloh Street, Auchentoroly Terrace and a portion of Reisterstown Road, the expressway was constructed in 1947 and ‘48 based on a city-sponsored traffic study. In order to decrease traffic congestion, the city devised a plan for expediting traffic from Mt. Vernon to the northwest corner of Druid Hill Park. As Druid Hill Park and the communities surrounding it represented a barrier to traffic flow, officials decided that the best way forward was to construct a highway along the western edge of the park. This road would separate the neighborhood (now known as Woodbrook) on the western edge from the park itself while shifting traffic flow onto residential streets.
In shaping this plan, the city did not seek input from the primarily African American and Jewish communities through which the proposed expressway would travel. When the plan was put through The Commission on City Planning, the lone dissenting member was John L. Berry, a man The Baltimore Sun identified at the time as the “negro member of the commission.” Despite Mr. Berry’s opposition as a representative of the community that the proposed route and accompanying traffic would directly affect, the city moved forward. Civil rights advocates, including Lily Jackson and Clarence Mitchell, would later assist in resisting the project, but to no avail.
At the time that the project was underway, the political boss James “Jack” Pollack ran Baltimore City. He owned all three of the representatives of the city district through which the route would pass. There is a strange and inconspicuous fact in one of the early Sun articles that describes the planned route. A street is singled out as the destination toward which the expressway would travel. This street is Anoka Avenue. To most readers, this may have gone unnoticed, but anyone connected to Pollack knew otherwise; this was his home address — a short, nondescript avenue in the Northwest.
Whether Pollack masterminded the affair to ease his own drive or not, the expressway was built, and the affected communities have declined with increasing vacancy and a less inviting built environment. There are certainly additional reasons for these declines, but the impact of the thoroughfare on the communities it crosses should not be discounted. Furthermore, with the construction of the Druid Hill Expressway, the stage was set for a future connection to the proposed Jones Falls Expressway, which would lead to the separation of Reservoir Hill from its access to the park.
The impact of this history is evidenced today in the 2017 Neighborhood Health Profiles, which demonstrate that Reservoir Hill and Penn North, communities that border one of the largest urban parks in the country, have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the city. However, Baltimore now has a significant opportunity to make things right.
As the city works on Druid Lake to bring it up to date with federal guidelines as a drinking water reservoir, it has the opportunity to begin to redress some of the issues of park access that have contributed to the poor health of the surrounding communities. In June, architect Davin Hong proposed in an op-ed that the city take full advantage of this project to make the park an amenity to the neighborhoods around it. He presented a vision for complete streets, a comprehensive approach to transportation that encourages health in the community through creating room for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Knowing now the history of how the “asphalt arteries” Mr. Hong describes were constructed, I hope that the city would see further reasons to seize this opportunity as a chance to right a past wrong. Metaphorical arteries are not the only arteries at stake. Working with the neighborhoods that border the park, the city could undo a past and present injustice while working to improve the health of the surrounding communities and individuals.
Daniel Hindman (email@example.com) is a West Baltimore resident and physician working toward a masters in public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Health as part of a fellowship in the Division of General Internal Medicine..