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Book records West Baltimore's heritage, neighbors' devotion to Gwynns Falls

By Jacquest Kelly
Published August 2, 2008
Copyright © 2008 The Sun

Could a bunch of West Baltimore neighborhood activists ever win a battle against a huge national highway? In the early 1970s, I sat in a West Forest Park Avenue living room and heard Carolyn and George Tyson speak of their work in a group called Volunteers Opposed to Leakin Park Expressway. Their ideas sounded convincing.

Did they have a chance against the federal interstate expressway system, Mayor William Donald Schaefer and all those people in cars? They did; amazingly, the lawsuit held. The highway, Interstate 70, still stops at the western city line.

A new book, The Gwynns Falls Baltimore Gateway to the Chesapeake Bay (The History Press), details the highway dispute, which it refers to as " Baltimore's Vietnam" or "A Gettysburg in concrete." This is one chapter in a well-illustrated paperback that shows how far we have come since the 1970s, when no one seemed to care about what happened to West Baltimore stream valleys that were supposed to be parks but were grossly neglected by the city or private philanthropy.

The ones who cared were the people who lived there. Now we have the Gwynns Falls Trail, and groups such as Parks and People, and neighborhood groups telling the story of this part of Baltimore's geography.

The book is largely written by Hunting Ridge resident W. Edward Orser, who is also an American studies professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with contributions from other local writers.

The environmental and neighborhood activists won a huge battle, but by the 1990s, the question had to be posed: The highway fight was over, but what about the surviving stream valley park? It got a bad name because it was so little used. It was feared as a place where bodies of homicide victims routinely were dumped.

This new book helps address that problem. The Gwynns Falls watershed can be hard to penetrate - and you practically have to be born here to know the few roads that traverse the place.

Like the stream in its title, the book wanders around a bit. This is not a bad thing. Streets in far West and Southwest Baltimore are some of the most confusing in the city. You need a good guidebook to explain things like the Carrollton Viaduct or the big house called Orianda, the one-time home of the Winans family on the Crimea estate.

I've always been fascinated by the old butchering neighborhood along Franklintown Road, as well as Franklintown itself, a neighborhood that looks like a lost Vermont village.

Old photographs are hard to resist, and this volume boasts extensive pictorial research. Many are from the News American files at the University of Maryland, College Park. The topics discussed in the work include Edmondson Avenue rowhouses, the African-American heritage in Sharp-Leadenhall and the story of Cherry Hill as a 1940s planned community.

The Gwynns Falls Trail and all the sights and neighborhoods around it would take a couple of months to explore. Every time I see a bicyclist or hiker along it, I'm encouraged that such a fascinating, if somewhat little understood, part of Baltimore is deservedly finding a new audience.

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