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Workers put the finishing touches on the pavilion at Eager Park in East Baltimore, which had its official opening Saturday.
Workers put the finishing touches on the pavilion at Eager Park in East Baltimore, which had its official opening Saturday. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Young men threw footballs, boys kicked soccer balls around, and girls played on exercise equipment Saturday as East Baltimore welcomed its newest patch of green space — Eager Park.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, other elected officials and representatives from the Johns Hopkins University gathered on a cold, windy day to cut a ribbon and plant a tree to mark the formal opening of the park.

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As the adults shivered in the amphitheater at the park's south end, children were paying them no mind as they ran through the lush grass that grows where blighted housing used to stand.

The $14 million park has been a long time coming — longer than most of the children in attendance had been alive. And for residents who thought the day would never come, it was an emotional experience.

"This is the day I've been waiting for," the Rev. Joanne Hinton told park designer Richard Jones as she wrapped him in a hug. "I thank God that I'm able to see it."

Hinton, who has lived in East Baltimore for all her 57 years, said she didn't believe the park would actually come about when she watched the houses being torn down in the three square blocks just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Nevertheless, Hinton was one of many community residents who put aside a longstanding distrust of Hopkins to work with planners and designers to develop the park in the Middle East neighborhood.

Hinton, who works as a property manager when she isn't tending to her ministry, plans to put the park to use.

"I'm going to use it every day to exercise, to release my stress when residents don't pay the rent," she said.

The park lies at the confluence of one of Baltimore's richest and most prestigious institutions and one of its most blighted neighborhoods.

To its south are the tall buildings of Hopkins and a gleaming new hotel under construction. Its northern border is lined with boarded-up buildings.

To the east lie recently built upscale townhouses. The western side is a mix of new construction and blight.

The park's opening puts 6 acres of green space — three blocks long by one wide — smack dab in the middle.

It isn't a city-owned park. It's been developed by Forest City-New East Baltimore partnership and East Baltimore Development Inc. The private entities will be responsible for its maintenance as part of the 88-acre New East Baltimore project.

"Forest City always saw the park as the centerpiece of the project and a place where people could come together," said Jones, president of the Mahan Rykiel Associates landscape architecture firm.

Jones, 43, said the southern square block — with its terraced slope and amphitheater — has been envisioned the "living room" of the park. The middle block, across Eager Street, would be the "lawn." The northern block, expected to be complete in June, will include a playground and community gardens.

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The park is expected to host festivals, concerts, food truck rallies, local school graduations and other community activities, Jones said. It includes exercise equipment and walking paths as part of an emphasis on wellness.

Jones said the plan for New East Baltimore calls for the eventual redevelopment of the blocks on the park's northern end as far as the Amtrak tracks.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who grew up in the neighborhood, said the park brings disparate communities together.

"The neighbors need to know who each other are so they can look out for each other," he said.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Baltimore Democrat who has represented the area for more than two decades, said the East Baltimore redevelopment plan goes back to 2002.

McFadden said that from the beginning, community residents have insisted that green space be a part of the plan. He said the state and federal governments have contributed money to the project.

"Our ultimate goal is to revitalize East Baltimore all the way to Clifton Park," he said.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said that when he came to the hospital area eight years ago, he was greeted by a sign proclaiming the park area as New East Baltimore.

"The block was strewn with rubbish and there were boarded-up homes all around, and this was the new East Baltimore," he said. But on Saturday, he pointed with excitement to the new development springing up around the park.

Daniels acknowledged that relations between the hospital and the community have been fraught with tension. Residents have long suspected that Hopkins was mostly interested in pushing them out.

"This is a new day," Daniels said. "It's not 'Hopkins and the community.' It's 'Hopkins of the community.'"

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