THE PEOPLE'S PARK Druid Hill Park, open to Baltimore's many walks of life


"There is no subject connected with the growth and prosperity of our City upon which all classes of the community are more nearly unanimous than they are with reference to the necessity for a Park."

-- John H. B. Latrobe, pitching the idea of a public park in the

Baltimore American newspaper, 1859.

Some things never change. More than 130 years later, a diverse crowd of Baltimoreans still believes a park is a necessity of civilized life.

And perhaps no other city-run park symbolizes the spirit of Baltimore more than Druid Hill Park, where people have experienced not only respite but also poignant and sometimes painful life lessons in its 746 lush acres.

It is here that herds of sheep performed the duties now associated with noisy lawn mowers, and Victorian ladies, flappers, World War II soldiers and, later, hippies and black-power militants once strolled.

Today, urban dwellers itching to feel soil between their fingers traipse out to the park to grow fruits and vegetables on rented plots.

Teen-agers come to see and be seen, particularly on weekend evenings, when hundreds of cars line the park streets.

For a few it is a place to release hostilities -- witness last week's shooting death at the park's pool. And for five other people since 1988, it has been the place their lives ended violently.

But these relatively infrequent criminal acts don't discourage blacks, whites, suburbanites, city dwellers and out-of-towners, who still flock to the park and the Baltimore Zoo, toting tots and pushing strollers. Add to this eclectic mix bikers, joggers, walkers and those who just want to catch a cool summer breeze under a giant shade tree, and you have a teeming -- and telling -- microcosm of the city's culture on any given day.

Baltimore residents consider Druid Hill Park, and everything in it, theirs -- as in their playground, their place to get away from the stresses of the city, their own little piece of green earth.

"On weekends, there must be 200,000 automobiles here. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but it is a widely used park," says Rick Preski, a spokesman at Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. While no exact figures are available, Mr. Preski estimates "tens of thousands" of people use the park yearly. "Families pack this park daily," he says.

On a recent Saturday, Karen Hackett lies on a blanket under a tree by the playground. Three of her four children are playing on swings and running around. The fourth, a 10-month-old baby, is asleep, oblivious to her surroundings.

"I'm here on Saturdays and Sundays," says Mrs. Hackett, a security guard. "The kids get to run around, release their tension and run off a lot of energy. And they get to leave me alone! It gives me time to think."

In another part of the park, Cleveland Epps isn't thinking about resting.

Growing up with parents who gardened, Mr. Epps missed tending to fruits and vegetables due to lack of space at his city home. Three years ago, he saw a notice about renting a city plot in the park, and he knew that was the solution.

This time of year, his garden is full of cucumbers, peppers, collard greens, lima beans, sweet potatoes and watermelons.

"I come out here just about every other day," says Mr. Epps, who tends the garden along with his friend Charles Richardson. "It's a hobby. But you also get to eat."

Joan Brown lives in the Catonsville area and never used to visit Druid Hill Park. A friend told her she would enjoy it. She says he was right.

Her three sons are splashing around in the pool. "We're just starting to hang out here," she says, reclining on the lawn, soaking up some rays.

People from all walks of life congregate at Druid Hill Park now, but it was not always such a welcoming place for some. At one time, going to the park meant entering boundaries that were strictly segregated.

"My father used to carry my brother and me to the park all of the time," says 74-year-old Charles Williams. "We used to take the streetcars, which would take us right across the street from the park."

But once there, Mr. Williams remembers he and his brother were puzzled by something.

"We had to walk past the white playground where there were swings and sliding boards and seesaws," he recalls. "My brother and I wanted to go there and play. But when we asked our father, he said we couldn't."

Off-limits to some

Mr. Williams, who is black, was about 8 years old, and it hadn't dawned on him that the playgrounds -- as were all the park facilities at that time -- were segregated. "I was little and I just used to wonder why we couldn't play on the nice playground," he says.

"We would keep walking, about eight more blocks, to get to the black playground," he says. The one, he says, with less $l equipment.

By the time he got to high school, Mr. Williams had learned what segregation was all about. But he never stopped coming to the park. "Druid Hill Park has been my whole life," he says. Anyway, he adds, segregation "was just the way it was back then, and the way it had always been."

In 1948, an interracial group of 24 tennis players at Druid Hill Park challenged the status quo -- and won.

Jeanette Fino, who is white, played tennis at the park and belonged to the Young Progressives of Maryland, a left-leaning political organization. Mr. Williams belonged to the Baltimore Tennis Club and played with other blacks at Druid Hill Park.

"There was a tennis court for white folks and a tennis court for blacks. It was a ruling of the park board that we had to be separate," says Mrs. Fino, 71.

"The tennis courts for the whites were well-kept-up and clay," she says. "The black courts were in terrible shape."

Mrs. Fino and her husband became friends with the black tennis players. And the Young Progressives decided to confront the park board about its segregation rules by holding an integrated match on the white courts.

"We notified the park board and there was a lot of publicity," Mrs. Fino recalls. "There was also a petition going around in support of the players."

The players played -- or attempted to -- while a crowd of about 500 supporters cheered them on. When police arrived, the tennis players sat down on the courts and were promptly arrested.

That protest initiated a legal battle that almost made it to the Supreme Court before the park's policy was changed. "It really opened up the way for integration in sports," says Mr. Williams, who was instrumental in getting a plaque in the park to commemorate the protest.

The Jim Crow policies of the park would not completely end until 1956. These days, the majority of those who use the park are African Americans, although all races enjoy its facilities.

Tim Bard and his family stopped in the park recently to have a picnic lunch. "We are on our way to Annapolis, and we are going to stop at the Aquarium. But we were looking for a place to eat lunch and decided to stop here," says Mr. Bard, munching on a shrimp sandwich.

Fred Knuckles has only one reason to come to the park.

"It's summer," he says, methodically cracking crabs under a pavilion and sipping beer with a friend. "I use this park for the

summer. . . . I come here every chance I get."

Family kind of place

Mr. Knuckles, a mechanical instructional designer, was expecting about 60 or 70 family members to join him at the park in a few days.

"We're just one of the many Baltimore families holding reunions here," he says.

Although widely used, the park still battles a perception that it's an unsafe place to be. According to police statistics, since 1988 there have been six homicides, including the recent pool shooting; 21 auto thefts; 20 assaults; 50 robberies and 10 rapes.

But, says Baltimore police spokesman Sam Ringgold, "The vast majority [of park-goers] are enjoying family activities.

"All in all, for as much as the park is used, crime here is very low. We do have police patrolling the park and off-duty police officers at the pool," says Mr. Preski of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Some years ago, this park had a bad reputation," says Cornelius "Snooky" Dean, who is chillin' on the sprawling green lawn in front of the crowded pool.

"But now, it's really nice and there is a lot to do. And I see that more people are coming out here," Mr. Dean says.

The postal employee keeps in shape by jogging in the park three or four times a week. Now, though, he's helping to watch a friend's three sons, who are splashing in the pool.

Witnessing change

Mr. Dean, a native Baltimorean, used to live across the street from the park. He has witnessed many changes there.

"The Three Sisters," he says, recalling one of those changes. "There used to be a body of water -- actually it was three little lakes -- we called the Three Sisters."

When they were about 12 years old, Mr. Dean and his buddies would "fish with a coat hanger, a piece of string and a safety pin." It worked. "We used to catch crawfish, minnows and tadpoles," he says.

As the layout of the park changed, the roads to the Three Sisters were were blocked off. But Mr. Dean, who now lives about two miles from the park, still finds a way to get there.

Just as Mr. Dean began going to the park at a young age with his friends, plenty of teens still converge on the park each weekend.

One Saturday, teen-ager Antwan Venable was playing a spirited game of volleyball with a group of friends.

The 14-year-old spends a lot of time at the park. "I'm out here playing volleyball all of the time, at least every other day," says Antwan, who lives in East Baltimore. "With all of this space, you get to relax."

And, yes, it is still a place for teen-agers to get to know one another. These days, the love songs might take the form of rap music blasting from boom boxes, but the intent is still the same as when Louis Armstrong's "Stardust" worked its magic.

Lilyan Lorenz, who is in her mid-70s, remembers those days well.

"When I was a teen-ager, we used to go to the highest part of the park, called Prospect Point," she says. It was so named, apparently, because car salesmen would take their "prospects" there to test the appeal of their cars.

"But in the evenings, the teen-agers used to take over," Mrs. Lorenz recalls. "It was a lover's spot."

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