Heart of a city

I had biked no more than 10 yards into Druid Hill Park one Saturday morning when I met a white-tailed deer. The deer bolted. My heart jolted. I had recorded another park memory.

Druid Hill Park, all 745 acres of it, attracts an impressive collection of human and animal life. This fall marks the 150th anniversary of the park, and many celebrations are planned. The Friends of Druid Hill Park, a volunteer group dedicated to maintaining and reinvigorating the park, has scheduled a number of events in October, including tours, sports festivals, a tree planting day and a gala at the Mansion House.

Recently, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum mounted a small but impressive exhibit tracing how integral the park was to Baltimore's African-American life. When I viewed the exhibit, I was struck by how the history of the park mirrors the nation's history of race relations. The land that much of the park occupies was once called Auchentorlie, whose grounds were tended by slaves. The park was "open to all races" in 1860 but mingling was discouraged — even outlawed — with separate swimming pools and tennis courts set up for blacks and whites. After some protests, including an integrated tennis match in 1948 that got tennis players arrested, the racial barriers were struck down after "separate but equal" facilities were ruled illegal.

Nowadays, the park still draws both blacks and whites — or to use the descriptor I once heard on the park's basketball court, "a salt and pepper" crowd. That was directed at me some years ago when another Baltimore Sun reporter and I visited the court for a feature piece we were writing about the city's outdoor games. As newcomers, we were greeted by the court regulars with some suspicion. Later, one of the players said he had pegged us — a white guy and a black guy — as police. My then-colleague Bill Rhoden has since moved on to The New York Times, where he is a sports columnist. I have migrated to the park's vegetable gardens, called City Farms, where I spend my spare time working the ground and taking in park experiences. Like a lot of Druid Hill regulars, I have collected a trove of personal park moments. Here are a few:

Parks are sylvan spots, and Druid Hill, a landscape crafted in part by Howard Daniels and John H.B. Latrobe, has some of the oldest forest growth in Maryland. Rarely do you see people climbing the trees, but one weekend in 1999 I watched, agape, as men scampered up the tall trees just north of the reservoir. I had happened upon the annual competition organized by members of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. The competition, I learned later, moves around to locations in Maryland and Virginia.

Watching made me nervous; I have a thing about heights. Yet I was fascinated. Bells had been placed in the tops of six trees. Contestants were timed as they scaled the trees and rang the bells. If, on their journey to a tree top, they made an unsafe move, or if something fell from their tool belts, they were disqualified. Here in the center of a city, I was watching men swing in the trees.

There are many monuments in the park, but the one that draws bagpipers is the statue of William Wallace. Every August on the Sunday closest to the 23rd of the month, members of the St. Andrew's Society of Baltimore gather at the west end of Druid Lake. One Sunday I came upon them. The pipers piped and quilts fluttered as men marched to the statue of Wallace to pay tribute to the Scottish patriot who was tortured and killed by the English in August 1305. Braveheart was remembered in Druid Hill.

Music, some made by man, some by nature, is a part of park life. The singing group Dru Hill takes its name from the park. During the summer, two major music events, the Caribbean Festival and the Stone Soul Picnic, take over the southeastern end of the park. Fences and booths go up, and roads are closed to most vehicles as ball fields become performance spaces. Falling as they do at the height of the harvest time, these festivals presented logistical problems for me and other gardeners trying to get to our crops. But over time solutions — issuing special passes, developing a back route through the woods — have resulted in peaceful co-existence between musicians and farmers. Moreover, our body clocks are different. By noon, when most musicians are just limbering up, most gardeners have been weeding for hours and are fleeing the heat of the sun.

Nature produces its own melodies. I have been whistled at by a groundhog, a noise that was supposed to scare me. Birdsong is common. One of my scariest melodic moments occurred late one fall afternoon when I heard a high-pitched song, looked up and saw a huge red-tailed hawk perched on a pole a few feet above me. It took me a minute or two to realize his sharp eyes were fixed on field mice, not on this lone field hand.

When my sons, now in their 20s, were younger, I used to roam the park with them. In the process I became acquainted with its rich past.

One son was fond of baseball, and so I would pitch batting practice to him. The ball fields are in demand, and often softball leagues, football teams, soccer players or an occasional rugby team would occupy our first choice for batting practice, the diamonds not far from the multi-color Chinese pagoda that, I learned, once served a station for a small train that ran through the park. Shut out of that field, my kid and I would travel the park looking for open space. We scouted the two diamonds that sit below the Mansion House, the grand Victorian that was the home of Lloyd Nicholas Rogers, who, under pressure from Mayor Thomas Swann, sold the family's Druid Hill estate to the city in 1860. (Rogers' ancestors were educated in Glasgow, and as Eden Unger Bowditch and Anne Draddy point out in their book "Druid Hill: the Heart of Historic Baltimore, " while in Scotland they probably learned about the druids and their veneration for nature and especially oak trees. Their Baltimore estate was full of oaks, and so the family named it Druid Hill. )

My son and I drove down a road paved with yellow bricks and looked at a couple of ball fields that sit behind the gorgeous glass conservatory built in 1888. Our last resort was to go to fields on the western edge of the park, one behind the Baltimore Zoo's former home for reptiles and the other across the road from the old cemetery of the Rogers clan. There is not a ball field in Druid Hill Park that I have not pitched in, and not an outfield I have not walked through, looking for lost baseballs.

I know crimes have been committed in the park. I have seen yellow crime scene tape strewn, incongruously, in the woods. But so far, in my 25 years of visiting the park, crime has dodged me. Like much of my urban maneuvering, as I travel the park, I am careful but not scared.

One of my treasured park experiences occurred during the filming of an episode of "Homicide: Life on the Streets." At the time, one of our sons was a teenager who loved "Homicide" but was having a rough time in school. So l took him with me as I went to the park to write a story about the filming. We talked about his situation at school as we drove around the park. We watched as cameras recorded a "shooting" at the statue of Christopher Columbus. Later, during a lunch served in a magnificent stone building that once served as the park's public bath house, we met the villain Luther Mahoney. Fearsome on the screen, the actor Erik Dellums was warm and welcoming in person.

After that, my son was happier. Maybe it was because of the time he and I had spent together talking about his situation. Maybe it was the glow that came from meeting a "Homicide" star. Whatever the reason, his world got better after spending a day in Druid Hill Park. That has happened to me repeatedly.

—Rob Kasper

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