Every day, thousands of motorists speed down the Jones Falls Expressway without giving a second thought to the Jones Falls.
Until two years ago, Heidi Matonis was one of them.
Then she participated in the first-ever Jones Falls Valley Celebration and became aware of the stream that has played such a central role in the history of Baltimore. She joined the Jones Falls Watershed Association; participated in cleanups; organized an "environmental birthday party" for her daughter; and became involved in an effort to create a valley greenway that people could use for travel and recreation.
"If we could get this greenway going, it would be so cool," she said.
"I'm a big advocate of city living vs. suburban sprawl, the idea of car-free living and alternative forms of transportation."
Yesterday, between 8,000 and 9,000 people came to the third annual Jones Falls Valley Celebration, according to Eileen Gillan, an event organizer. Those who staged the celebration hope that many of the participants, like Matonis, will feel the urge to become more active in their communities and in the Jones Falls Valley. They believe it is time for the long-neglected city stream, and the valley it carved, to receive their due.
"We're doing the festival to help acquaint people with the positive features of the valley," said Bill Miller, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., one of the groups that helped organize the festival, which began with kayaking on the waterway Saturday morning and ended with a festival in front of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum yesterday afternoon.
"We want them to know that despite efforts to ruin the stream, there are parts that have beautifully survived, and there are parts that can be brought back."
The stream has survived more than 300 years of use and abuse - mostly abuse. At one time, Baltimoreans emptied much of their raw sewage into it. By 1912, the waterway had become so polluted it caught on fire. After that, the city started a tunnel project to cover the lower Jones Falls so that nobody would have to see it. For most of this century, it was neglected, slipping silently by mills and warehouses and beneath highways, clogged with trash.
Recently, however, Baltimore residents have tried to reclaim the stream, cleaning up the trash, planning a greenway along it and starting the Jones Falls Valley Celebration.
During the first celebration, in 1998, Matonis jogged on the expressway with her husband, dog and three children. She tied the dog's leash around her waist and pushed her two youngest in a stroller while her husband and oldest daughter biked by her side.
Matonis loves the idea of a greenway snaking down the middle of the city where she and her family could enjoy nature. She said she has visions of a nature sanctuary along the stream one day and a play-ground for people from different neighborhoods to enjoy.
"I tell my children, if the Jones Falls ran through our back yard, we'd stretch a net across it and catch all the trash," she said.
This year, to encourage others to get involved in revitalizing the valley, Matonis organized two art exhibitions for the Jones Falls Valley Celebration. Both are on display through Oct. 15.
An exhibit of paintings by adults, "The Jones Falls Watershed Urban Landscape Challenge," is at Bibelot Cross Keys, and a show of children's artwork is at the Meadow Mill Athletic Center in Mount Washington.
Of the participants yesterday, some biked or skated on the northbound lanes of the expressway, which were closed from Fayette Street to Northern Parkway from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Some took a walking tour with the Baltimore Walking Club. Some ran in the Jones Falls 8K Express 2000. Others parked near the Lyric Theatre and walked along the expressway and Falls Road to the Jones Falls festival outside the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.
At the festival, people gathered to eat, drink, buy T-shirts, listen to music, take trolley rides and collect pamphlets from some of the more than 40 vendors who had set up booths by the road.
Participants walking on the expressway yesterday marveled at buildings, tried to guess the names of overpasses, clucked their disapproval over trash in the river, and admired the bellies of bridges. They watched rock-climbers scale cliffs, ventured off the road to look at waterfalls they never knew existed and walked by old mills, now recycled into retail complexes, that line the stream.
"There are a lot of magical spots, and most of them you don't see from the road," said Michael Beer, co-chair of the Jones Falls Watershed Association and the man who helped dream up the idea for a Jones Falls Valley Celebration several years ago.
Beer, a retired Johns Hopkins biology professor, said Parks and People, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore, approached him in 1996 to see whether he could find a way to help revitalize the valley.
He took up the challenge, spending an entire year just getting to know the stream; boating on it, walking by it, picking up the trash.
He got the idea for the Jones Falls Valley Celebration, he said, because he wanted to share his discoveries with others.
Parks and People grants funded early efforts, he said, and they were augmented by grants from other organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and by private fund-raising efforts.