Norman Benton, 72, fondly remembers his childhood days of fishing and swimming in Fort Armistead Park, a 45-acre area on the Baltimore City-Anne Arundel line named after a local War of 1812 commander. The Hanover resident thinks the fort is "beautiful."
Del. Joan Cadden recalls that she went there every year as a child for Easter egg hunts or to watch ships cruise by on their way into Baltimore harbor. The park used to have a playground, the Brooklyn Park Democrat says, and the fort's underground tunnels were a great attraction for teens, who would explore the dark areas in groups.
But these days, Fort Armistead Park isn't a place for family fun. Abandoned cats overrun the area, graffiti and garbage cover the grounds and rumors abound about drug use and sexual activity there. Even the entrance sign is marred with graffiti.
The park may be in Baltimore, but Anne Arundel County residents are pushing for its cleanup.
Lying in the shadow of the Key Bridge near Interstate 695, the park is in need of a makeover, county residents say. A small group of mostly Pasadena area residents has been attempting to clean up the area, but their limited numbers and a little help from the city haven't been enough to make a difference.
"In three years, we've made no progress," said Claudia Lescalleette of Pasadena. "We don't have the resources and the knowledge and experience to handle what's going on down there."
The park is not a welcoming site. The two-level, sunken, concrete fort is secluded by trees. With that cover and the underground tunnels, it's an ideal location for questionable behavior, area residents say.
The sun never sees the fort's below-ground chambers, which are covered in graffiti and littered with condom boxes and aerosol cans. Its beach is an eyesore -- beer cans, broken glass and other garbage spoil the sandy area.
"There's too many unsavory characters and the park is in such disrepair, you drive in there and you're just scared away," Cadden said.
But a handful of residents have braved the park's conditions to work on improving it.
Armed with jugs of water and buckets of cat food, Lescalleette tries to care for the cats that have been abandoned at the park, while animal-control officials attempt to remove them.
Lescalleette estimates that at least 30 cats are living in the park and that she and other residents have rescued more than 300 during the past three years, taking them to shelters or rescue groups.
Some of their discoveries have been gruesome. They've found animal carcasses, cats with their legs bound together and cats choking because they've outgrown their collars. The effort to save the cats has exhausted Lescalleette emotionally and financially.
"Something has got to be done," Lescalleette said. "As bad as I want to walk away, I just can't leave all those lives down there."
Baltimore's Bureau of Animal Control has been addressing the problem for years by humanely trapping the cats and removing cat shelters and food dishes that good Samaritans have left there, said Robert Anderson, director of animal control. Other city parks have cat colonies, but Fort Armistead Park fills the fastest because it's a secluded park that doesn't attract large numbers of visitors, he said.
Animal abandonment carries a $500 fine, but animal control cannot dedicate enough officers to patrol the park and ticket all the offenders, Anderson said.
"If the people would stop dropping the cats off, we would have had this problem wiped out by now," Anderson said.
Named after Maj. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, the fort was built in 1898 to protect the outer channels of the Baltimore harbor. Baltimore bought the land to use as a recreation area in 1926, after the government closed the fort. During World War II, the Navy took over the area to use as an ammunition dump.
In 1947, it was returned to the city with the vision of creating a pristine waterfront park.
Nearby Arundel residents claim the park is a hot spot for drug use and sexual activity. They warn females not to venture there alone.
However, Baltimore police say they have not seen evidence to prove such suspicions. Police check the area at least six times a day, and the most frequent citation they write is for trespassing, said Southern District commander Maj. Jeffrey R. Rosen.
"The vice squad hits it periodically, and we have yet to see illicit activity," he said. "I wouldn't characterize it as a trouble spot or a thorn in our side."
Cadden has recently brought the park's problems to the attention of city officials and said she hopes officials will dedicate money for a cleanup effort.
"Our county can't afford to fix it," she said. "It really is the city's responsibility."
The city has removed the graffiti in the past and is committed to doing it again, said Michael J. Baker, chief of parks for the city Department of Recreation and Parks. But like the abandoned cats, it is a recurring problem.
"Unfortunately, you clean it up one day, and they can come back and spray-paint that night," Baker said.
The department improved the park's boat launch in February, spending about $120,000 in state and federal grants. The boat launch received Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility improvements and new railings. Funding for parks next year will be determined during the capital budget process in August.
"Because of [Fort Armistead Park's] remoteness, we're going to have to concentrate a little more on it. I think it's just been stuck down there at the very tip of the city," Baker said. "It still deserves attention, and we'll try to give it that."
Concerned county residents have been giving the park all the attention they can. Benton helped organize a community cleanup effort through the city's Shape Up Your Parks program. Last month, residents picked up trash while the city supplied gloves, bags, rakes and shovels.
Despite efforts by the city and residents, the park isn't anywhere near what it used to be -- or could be -- residents say.
"It could be a beautiful spot again, and it should be," Cadden said. "I think it could become again a picturesque little park that families could go to."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.