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Don't forget city park's racist past

Will Baltimore forget how Preston Gardens came to be?

I see that Preston Gardens is to get a $6.75 million face lift ("$6.75 face lift planned for Preston Gardens park in downtown Baltimore," Aug. 30). The Downtown Partnership would like this area cleaned up. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is excited about innovative ways to create and preserve green spaces within our city. It was noted that the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was involved when this city park was created in 1920. The Sun wrote a beautiful article embellishing and blessing all of the above. I guess we should all genuflect and bow our heads!

But that's not the full story about Preston Gardens. Did citizens ever think about how this awkward piece of real estate behind City Hall and situated between Mercy Hospital and the Mason Hotel came about?

In Antero Pietila's book, "Not in my Neighborhood," the author reported that Baltimore Mayor James H. Preston led a search for additional segregation tools after he came to power in 1911. America's local government had not yet widely discovered condemnation as a land-acquisition tool and none had used it to pursue racial goals. Mayor Preston was a pioneer on both counts. He presided over Baltimore's first government-sponsored African American removal project decades before post-World War II urban renewal. His target was the area north of the courthouse and City Hall.

Three churches were demolished. A park was created in the middle of the bifurcated St. Paul Street. It was named after Mayor Preston. In 1917, when Preston Gardens construction was under way, he declared that health conditions justified the segregation and relocation of blacks on a vaster scale. Mr. Preston announced that he would introduce an ordinance to compel blacks to have homes only in those segregated areas. He would do this by invoking the city's police powers in order to protect the health of white citizens. Blacks would be quarantined as they "constitute a menace to the health of the white population" and this description goes on for several pages in the book.

The black community suffered much under the time that this man was mayor and all of us should have known this history — including The Sun. Whenever I take this road past Preston Gardens going into the city, I bow my head because I think of the genesis of this irregular piece of property in the middle of Baltimore as holy and sacred because it was wrong to do such an evil deed. We wonder today what brought about our ghettos and the consequences of living in these ghettos, but all we have to do is look at out past — and we need to find a way to make our past part of our living future.

We can start with Preston Gardens by renaming it, providing a sanctuary within the area for reflection and having a mayor's walk each spring so as to never forget the significance of what happened to create this patch of traffic median.

Raymond D. Bahr, Baltimore

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