A black Lexus with polished silver rims creeps along scenic Wyman Park Drive. Its driver is doing a serious gangster lean, head barely peeking above the dashboard. His studied look of supreme boredom seems to say, "Yes, I know. I'm driving the baddest Lex in Baltimore."
It's Sunday afternoon, and the cruisers have arrived in Druid Hill Park. In gold, late-model Acuras and bold four-wheel drive Cherokees. By the hundreds. For every car and motorcycle in the parade, another is parked along the winding route.
Everyone is on display. Women are color-coordinated -- some with orange fingernails, orange platform shoes, orange midriff blouses and hip huggers, some sporting the 1960s look of blond hair and frosted lips. The guys are decidedly more casual. Their fancy cars speak for them.
For some who love Druid Hill Park, this weekly parade of metal and exhaust is a degrading affront to its natural beauty. They would ban cars from the park altogether if they could. But the Sunday cruisers say their tradition is as integral to life in the park as family picnics and speed walks around the reservoir.
It's a debate that helps define Druid Hill Park in 1997: an ever-evolving city treasure, jealously loved by many -- often competing -- factions. Conflicting interests, priorities, philosophies and histories set them apart, often contentiously, as they champion their pet causes before city park officials. But they do agree on this: the park, undervalued by official Baltimore, is at risk.
Repeatedly, these disparate communities have pulled together to preserve it.
Only this spring, a coalition of park supporters surprised politicians with their vocal and vehement rejection of a poorly publicized proposal to sell almost nine acres of the park to a local church.
"It was as though they were expecting people not to care, and people do care," says Greer Shorter, a member of the Druid Hill Park Advisory Committee. The plan was scuttled.
Druid Hill Park was born out of the 19th-century movement that extolled the benefits of open space in increasingly congested and industrialized cities. Established in 1860 through the city's purchase of a private estate, the new park was revered. Traces of its original glory remain in the ceremonial entrances near both Mount Royal Terrace and Eutaw Place.
But less than a century after it opened, chunks of the park would be viewed as dispensable. In 1957, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. signed a measure to build a civic center on 30 acres adjacent to the city reservoir known as Druid Lake. Outraged citizens brought suit and the plan was dropped.
As the city grew, though, other pieces of the park were taken. The construction of Interstate 83 and Druid Park Lake Drive took big bites from the park's east and south sides, and hindered pedestrian access.
Other debates have raged over plans to locate schools inside the park, to move its statue of Christopher Columbus to Little Italy, to install television transmission towers. Each time, park constituents rose to the occasion.
Now, there's a new threat, the park's defenders say: The dissolution of the city Department of Recreation and Parks' construction division means many projects outlined in the park's two-year-old master plan will likely be shelved.
Druid Hill is a huge space: 745 acres of meadows, woods and reservoir, 43 miles of paved roads, untold miles of largely neglected paths. Originally designed by Howard Daniels in the English landscape tradition, Druid Hill was the country's third such urban park after Central Park in New York City and Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Safety City, a traffic education site for children, is here, along with the Baltimore Zoo, a disc golf course and the Conservatory Palm House. There is a huge swimming pool, busy tennis and basketball courts, baseball diamonds, volleyball courts, picnic pavilions and back roads tailor-made for serious bikers and joggers.
The park draws more than 2 million visitors each year -- a substantial number for a city of Baltimore's size -- suggesting that Druid Hill is truly Baltimore's great meeting place. The tourists may know the Inner Harbor. Baltimoreans know Druid Hill Park.
Some, though, don't know it at all. Many avoid it out of an exaggerated fear of crime. Others don't go there because of the perception that Druid Hill Park belongs to black Baltimore. That belief, held among whites and blacks alike, stems from the park's place in the hard journey from slavery to civil rights.
Slaves once worked Auchentorlie, the plantation that became Druid Hill Park. While Baltimore embraced recreation for its citizens, Druid Hill was the only park with facilities for blacks, such as a 1915 soda fountain installed for "the special accommodation of negroes." Segregation prevailed in the park from 1905 until 1956. A plaque stands at the site of a historic 1948 protest in which white and black tennis players allied to defy segregation policies. But once the entire park was open to all, whites fled. And, in a sense, blacks assumed ownership of the park.
This legacy is clear on a summer day. Blacks from all walks of life visit the park for high-level tennis games, torrid basketball and joyous family reunions, while in a handful of nearby blue-collar white neighborhoods, residents spend the long, hot days perched on their stoops.
However, those who know the park say, more affluent whites from neighboring Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, Mount Royal and the Johns Hopkins community are gradually rediscovering the park.
Like any other great urban park, Druid Hill is a reflection of its city. While not comparable, in some ways, to urban greens such as New York's Central Park or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Druid Hill is just as vital to city life. Even those who never set foot in it would miss it if it disappeared. Baltimore would be a bit more claustrophobic, the air a little more polluted. A place to escape the stresses and slights of urban life would vanish.
That's why, even as park activists argue heatedly over issues such as banning cars, opening a restaurant, or building a monument to African-American tennis stars, they understand the bigger issue is, as always, the park's survival.
Talk to the people who use the park, the tennis players, the disc golfers, Sunday cruisers, basketball players, community gardeners. They may not agree on what Druid Hill Park is there for, but they will tell you it is well used and well loved. They will tell you it is a city treasure, rich with history, and rich with potential.
Once, when the city tried to raze a playground, Helen Bradford stood in front of a bulldozer. Over my dead body, she said. The playground remains.
Bradford told city officials she would defy the bulldozers again if the proposed sale of Druid Hill Park land to a local church went through. They had no business selling parkland, she told them.
"That park means a whole lot to Baltimore City," says Bradford, who lives on Druid Hill Avenue. "I'm now 75 years old and I played in that park. I had 15 children; they went to that park. I have 45 grandchildren; all of them attend the park. And I have 33 great-grandchildren; they are playing in that park."
As a black woman, Bradford had to fight to use the park she so passionately defends.
"When we first went to the park, it was separate. We fought for the rights for the park to be as a whole for everyone, the swimming pool and everything," she says.
After struggling to open the park to everyone, Bradford says she's not about to let it go to the highest bidder, white or black. "We fight for all of what's right," she says. "The park is a history of Baltimore City."
The tennis players
Russell V. Kelley, a Morgan State University biology professor, doesn't like to think of the park in terms of "ownership."
The word "smacks of what I call restrictions," says Kelley, before a Saturday morning tennis game at Druid Hill's lakeside courts. Kelley has run his fraternity's charity tennis tournament there for 21 years.
But a certain sense of entitlement is shared among blacks who never abandoned the park. It helps explain the skepticism sometimes expressed by African-Americans during park revitalization discussions.
Hardly a firebrand, Kelley delicately suggests that 40 years after desegregation, certain proposals to restrict park use threaten African-Americans' enjoyment of the park. These proposals are usually disguised by other concerns, and more often than not, are inadvertently racist, Kelley says.
Take a past recommendation to eliminate cars by creating a shuttle between Mondawmin Mall and the park. That's a direct hit at the Sunday tradition of parading through the park in your car, an event enjoyed overwhelmingly by young African-Americans, he says.
Environmental advocates also would ban parking on the grass, because it curtails water flow to tree roots. "When you get an influx of young people on a Sunday, this becomes an issue," Kelley says. But such a concern doesn't stop overflow Baltimore Zoo visitors, many of them white, from parking on the grass, he notes.
"He wants to candy-coat it," says Raymond Moore, Kelley's tennis colleague and leader of a small advocacy group called the Baltimore Cultural Alliance. He says the real issue is that whites want to return to the park but there's "just too many black folk around here."
Since World War I, Druid Hill Park has been a center for Baltimore's black tennis players. Eight courts built specifically for black players became the focus of a community.
"You had the best black tennis players in the city. They played there. This was the cream of the crop," says Moore, 55. "Althea Gibson? I can distinctly recall she would play at the courts by the water fountain."
It was a social spot, a meeting place for world travelers, teachers and stevedores. Morning games started as early as 6: 30; the after-work crowd began arriving at 5 p.m. A pecking order developed -- fair players on the upper courts; the best players on the two lower courts.
The Department of Recreation and Parks has allocated $500,000 to turn the old court where Arthur Ashe and Gibson played into a stadium. Blacks' presence in the park will be honored with a memorial on the adjacent site of the old "Negroe Pool."
But for Moore, an additional proposal to put three clay, tile and mirror trees listing names of tennis and swimming champions on the site is a disservice to the memory of Druid Hill's great black players. Instead, his Baltimore Cultural Alliance, a minority of park tennis regulars, has lobbied for statues honoring Gibson and Ashe.
"It's amazing," he says. "Twenty years from now black kids can come through the park and still see a statue of Christopher Columbus and Mr. Wallace [the Scot], but no evidence of black folks ever having been there."
The disc golfer
In some ways, Paul Kilduff's strained relationship with Druid Hill Park exemplifies its charged racial history. An avid disc golf player who participated in the park's master plan process a few years ago, Kilduff, 48, rarely ventures beyond the course near the park's western edge.
"I used to go into the park. I took my daughter to swing on the swings. But I haven't felt welcome, to tell you the truth," Kilduff says.
"We -- the disc golf community -- are largely European American. Frankly, we stick out like a sore thumb," Kilduff says. "There are people who use that park and think of it as their park, and I think we have sort of got our own little corner of it that we use, and we love it; it's a great place."
Kilduff tells of encountering an African-American man and his daughter on the course while he was in the middle of a game. "I said something to the effect of, 'Do you mind if I play through here, I don't want to hit you,' and he said, 'It's my park.' "
Kilduff said he told the man, "I think it's my park, too. I think we both belong here."
Several African American men have begun playing disc golf, Kilduff notes. "It's the best thing that could happen."
Kilduff is not at ease speaking about racial divisions in the park. But he adds: "I want to tell you, 99 percent of the time, this is not an issue."
Nor, says Kilduff, are safety concerns. "I feel safe most of the time," he says. "We know bodies have been found there. It's a place where we don't like to stay after dark. My car's been broken into. I had the doors unlocked, but they broke the window anyway."
Several of Kilduff's golf chums avoid Druid Hill in favor of another, more suburban course.
"That doesn't apply to me," Kilduff says. "I live in the city. I'm happy to go any place where I feel I have a place. I do feel I have a place at Druid Hill Park -- at the disc golf course in any case."
Bob Rhoads, 45, grew up in neighboring Druid Heights and remembers his parents taking him to the park "as a way of getting out of the city."
"There were no fences around the pool and you could walk into the zoo," he says. "The zoo was free."
You could picnic with giraffes looking over your shoulder, recalls Rhoads, whose vision for Druid Hill Park comes from those days.
"Everybody used the park, black and white," he says. "It was a place for all folks to go to, summer and winter."
Rhoads, who often meets his wife for lunch in the park, wants to keep as much open space as possible in Druid Hill, perhaps add a few nature trails, and definitely do away with cars. Even though he plays tennis at Druid Hill's courts, his idea of the park puts him at odds with those who want to build a tennis stadium.
"As long as I'm around I'm going to be a strong proponent of open space," says Rhoads. "It's so refreshing to walk inside that park."
If it weren't for the two plots she and her grown daughter tend in Druid Hill Park's community gardens, Ruth Carus likely would have moved out of Baltimore last year. "Having the garden here made the difference between moving out in the county and staying inside the city, yes it did," Carus says.
Carus, the garden's supervisor, drives seven miles from the Park Heights corridor to weed and water her strawberries, hot peppers, kale, basil, tomatoes and eggplants. "I love gardening, and I only have a little porch. It's a way of living in a city, and yet having something suburban."
Carus spends at least six hours a week in the garden, often
arriving before the morning's worst heat at 6: 30 a.m., or joining the after-work cultivators in the evening.
The Druid Hill gardeners are a very social crowd, and more racially integrated than most park constituencies. When someone is on vacation or ill, others will care for their plots. Carus, who moved to Baltimore from Georgia, has learned much from her colleagues about Maryland gardening techniques.
The gardeners also become activists when necessary. Once, there was talk of moving the garden, which would wreak havoc with established strawberry, raspberry and asparagus patches. "We raised our hackles about that," Carus says.
Something Carus can't understand is why the park is ignored by city government. She and other gardeners "feel as though the city doesn't give a hoot about the park, even though it's a real selling point."
"I used to work at the [Palm House] conservatory as a volunteer," she says. "It's such a beautiful thing, [but the city] never played it up. People would love to come out if they knew about these things."
"Oh. Good shot, baby."
"Tight D, fellas."
At Druid Hill Park, you can find a pick-up basketball game almost anytime -- morning or evening, weekday or weekend.
Mike Law, 38, has played here for 22 years. The scene hasn't changed much, he says. Once in a while a star stops by -- Keith Booth, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell. But usually, it's just regular guys on the two regulation-size courts. You don't see many young guys, says Law.
"It's supposed to be a young man's game, but this court will wear them out because they're not used to it," he says.
The "hotheads" and troublemakers also stay away, he says. The Druid Hill game isn't for them. It's about relieving stress. It's about getting in a couple of good runs, along with some good old-fashioned banter.
"That keeps a lot of the guys coming, that male bonding," says Law.
If the players had their way, they'd make one improvement.
"We need the kind of illumination they have on the tennis courts," says Law. "We just need the lights so we can play almost 'til midnight."
"I think the park gets a bad rap, and it shouldn't be so," says Terry Dowdye, 32, pausing during a bike ride around the reservoir with his family. "I've never seen an arrest made."
Dowdye has been coming to the park for nine years. As far as he's concerned, people who fear the park don't know the park.
"Everybody pretty much enjoys the park in harmony," he says. "Everyone gets along."
If there is a problem, the police are close by, their cars parked along the various paths. Sometimes mounted police ride through.
"The kids love [the horses] and pet them," says Selina Howard, 40, holding a drowsy Terry Jr., 2. "For me, as an adult, that lets you know there's security here."
Why do people cruise? For the excitement -- and the "honeys," says Steve Davidson, 30, a faithful cruiser for two years.
What happens each Sunday is merely the automobile culture's version of the old promenade. The method has changed, but the purpose remains the same: See and be seen. Davidson rides a metallic red Kawasaki Ninja 500. Surprisingly, with all the cruising and gawking, he has never seen an accident.
"I guess the passengers are doing the most looking while the other one drives," says Davidson, wearing Chicago Bulls jersey No. 91 (Dennis Rodman). He also says he knows of "no problems whatsoever" in the park, adding, "just traffic problems."
Judy Morris, 46, strolls around Druid Lake, along the paved path she helped close to cars. This is where she and her husband taught their children to ride their bikes. "It's real nice to have a place where you're not going to worry about getting run over," she says.
Morris, a founding member of the preservation group Friends of Druid Hill Park, is an avowed park purist. Ideally, she says, motor vehicles would be banished from Druid Hill. Restaurants, too. Her group recently offered the city $10,000 from its coffers to shelve a proposal for a summertime crab shack in the park.
Now another park restaurant proposal has her apoplectic. A restaurant of any kind promises to multiply park traffic, she says. Why don't they just pave the whole park and get it over with, she asks.
Critics of Morris' all-or-nothing approach to conserving the park note that she lives in Towson, not in the city. They say her desire to ban cars is -- inadvertently or otherwise -- a racist tactic designed to chase African-Americans from the park.
But Morris, who lived on Eutaw Place until 1991, calls such accusations a "cop-out." We can't keep giving parts of the park away, she says. Everyone, black and white, deserves a whole and pristine park.
Druid Hill Park should be a "cathedral" for the city's children, Morris says. Urban poverty and its attendant hardships dictate that "we need Druid Hill Park more than ever."
Every day, as he walked Zen, his Akita, biked or jogged through Druid Hill Park, Michael Butler eyed one of its vacant buildings, imagining it reborn as a carryout restaurant. So Butler, who has lived across from the park since 1976, approached the parks department with his idea.
On a recent sparkling afternoon, Butler and his wife, Carolyn H. Anderson-Butler, stand outside the 1938 stone structure, soon to become The Great American Burger. Butler, 48, has done his homework. He knows the park's daily headcount, and that 50,000 people live within a 30-minute walk of the park.
Butler, on the faculty of Baltimore City Community College, and a chef who once ran a burger restaurant at the Inner Harbor, knows traffic and parking are sensitive issues in Druid Hill. He hopes his customers will park, pick up their orders, then drive elsewhere to eat.
He's not a big fan of the Sunday auto promenade. But he says purists like Judy Morris don't seem to understand that the new master plan calls for a restaurant, or that there is precedent -- food often has been sold in the park and in other great urban parks over the years. Or that the building he'll be leasing, once a black-only bathhouse, will be used for the first time in 20 years.
His efforts, he says, will refurbish the building and add 20 jobs to the city's work force.
The next generation
Katana Elliott and Erica Lopez, both 14, are headed for Western High School this fall, but that's weeks away. Right now, the park pool is the center of their summer world.
"We swim, mess with the boys, just hang out with our friends," says Lopez. "We might come for a picnic once in a while, but not much."
Picnics are family affairs. At the pool, you see friends you haven't seen since last summer, or even elementary school. There's time for dunking, splashing, a little innocent flirting.
"It's madd fun in the summer," says Elliott. "This is the place to be."
1652: Susquehannock Indians ceded land to Lord Baltimore
1807: Earliest recorded use of name "Druid Hill"
1865: Parks Board denied permission for lecture by Frederick Douglass
1905: Afro-American newspaper protested park segregation
1921: "Negroe Pool" built
1924: White pool built
Number of cemeteries: 3
Number of natural springs: 13
Number of picnic pavilions: 12
Number of tennis courts: 18
Number of softball diamonds: 5
Acres of lawn: 400
Number of tree species: 65
1879: Baltimore Zoo established
Number of visitors on a typical summer weekend: 24,000
Movie that re-created hot summer sleep-outs in the park: "Avalon"
SOURCE: DRUID HILL MASTER PLAN REPORT, 1995
Pub Date: 7/13/97