To hear its most fervent supporters describe it, the Gwynns Falls Trail being planned through West Baltimore isn't merely about a walk in the woods. They speak of the project in a holistic sense, with all the fervor of a tent preacher. The trail will be like "healing tissue" for a sick city, they say. It will create "a blueprint for the life we wish for ourselves," exalts the project designer.
Clearly, the people behind this project see and feel something that might not be evident to the average person who knows the area they're talking about. The Gwynns Falls watershed? It's full of trash. To go through Leakin Park? That's dangerous. Who's going use this bike path? Who will clean and protect it? But keep listening to the designers and you get the excited sense of being on the ground floor of something big. The Gwynns Falls Trail could be to residential life in Baltimore what the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park have been to the tourism sector.
Bike paths -- they're known as "linear parks" -- have played a part in urban renaissances across the country. The trail in Anne Arundel County has become so popular that former county executive Robert Neall said he pitied the leader who some day would have to tear it up to extend the light-rail line to Annapolis. People use these paths for biking, walking, jogging, meeting. Maybe most important, they heighten a sense of appreciation for the natural beauty around us.
Isn't safety a concern? Most definitely, which is why the Baltimore police were brought in to help plan the trail. Emergency phones, possible bike patrols and opening sightlines so path users don't feel hidden are among the suggestions. By its nature, the uniqueness of a trail traversing a densely populated city carries the burden of safety issues that a trail farther out would not. But neither can a hiker-biker trail in the countryside have the social impact of this one. The eventual users will have to employ some of the common sense adopted by those who love New York's Central Park; in other words, don't jog there at 2 a.m.
About $2.6 million -- half from the federal government, half from state and local governments and private giving -- is in place for the first phase. The entire trail will take three years to construct, but with a Republican Congress clamping down on federal funds, alternative sources will have to be found to complete the work. Amid stories of demoralized city neighborhoods, this positive project may indeed hold medicinal qualities. Residents and city and state officials need to build support for the trail to make the entire project a reality.