Monday, July 11, 2016

Harlem Park- only memories intact

It may be fitting that Lisa Millspaugh heads up the Baltimore Parks & People Foundation, a non-profit organization going back to the days of William Donald Schaefer that picked up where the City Park's department leaves things behind. Her father, Marty Millspaugh in those days had already spent decades as part of the Charles Center  and the Inner Harbor Development Corporation (both later combined and eventually becoming BDC), a semi public group that picked up things where the City Department of Planning left them at the time.
“Harlem, the Country House of Dr. Edmondson,”
by Nicolino V. Calyo, 1834.
Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections, 
1968.0060 A.
source:  Baltimore Heritage

This is to say two things: Firstly, diminishing City power and resources required ever new initiatives to augment what the old structure of governance used to do but couldn't do anymore. Secondly: The need for green spaces and action in the neighborhoods has been recognized for quite some time.

Lisa Millspaugh's Parks & People organization does a lot of things. One of them cleaning up green spaces in Harlem Park which had been created in a then much disputed act of urban renewal going back to 1961 even before the nearby "Highway to Nowhere". Inner block renewal began with "the block 314 demonstration project". The demolition project included also the planting of 800 new trees.
One of the most ambitious elements of the urban renewal plan for Harlem Park was the city’s goal of demolishing the hundreds of four and five-room houses on Woodyear Street, Vincent Street and other back alleys. Decades of neglect created difficult conditions for tenants. Some houses still lacked indoor toilets or other plumbing facilities. The neighborhood’s urban renewal plan (adopted in 1961) envisioned replacing these homes with 29 small parks and playgrounds. Demolition started in the 1960s, requiring the relocation of hundreds of local residents, but development of the parks proceeded slowly. Debate over which city agency should maintain the parks contributed to their disuse. (Baltimore Heritage)
Mayor William Donald Schaefer negotiating with Harlem Park
community leaders Carmena F. Watson, Barbara C. Ferguson, and 
Madeline Pullen, 1983 (source: Baltimore Heritage)
The dispute over maintenance was never settled it seems since the spaces deteriorated from day one. Public parks in the backs of houses seemed like a misguided idea and the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council had said so back then. When I analyzed the matter some 12 years ago, I concluded that inner block green spaces are only useful if they have controlled access limited to those who live around the space. This would require locking up the alleys. The Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) once worked out how that can be done and still allow emergency access. The City enacted a program and toolkit.

Uncontrolled the Harlem Park inner block spaces became nuisances instead of being common playgrounds and gathering spaces for the neighbors on the block. Even  a controlled space in back, though, would be more of a suburban concept, counter to the urban culture of communing from front steps and front porches on the public street.
Harlem Park Community Clean-Up
(Harlem Park Community Association)
As the BBJ reported this week, citizens and Parks and People are back to the task of making these open spaces assets to the community. The article says nothing about controlled access and nothing about targeted approaches to fill the vacant houses around the renovated green spaces (Vacants to Value). I don't know if plans are in place to address those two issues in Harlem Park. If not, the cycle will simply continue.

For the astonishingly rich history of Harlem Park visit Baltimore Heritage which has taken a special interest in West Baltimore's Squares, the gorgeous urban parks in the front of houses.

Harlem Park is a microcosm reflecting the full sequence of all the problems that continue to vex Baltimore to this day, from red-lining to abandonment. The study of this history reveals that current demo plans combined with project CORE and the Green Network seem to be very close to the same urban renewal that has been tried so many times before.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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