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A greenway brings art to the people

Fraser Smith


A short stretch of South Arlington Avenue could go a long way toward promoting togetherness and a higher quality of life in the neighborhoods of the Southwest Partnership. The proposed South Arlington Avenue Greenway would pull the seven neighborhoods together. At the same time it would introduce visitors to area attractions – the popular Mobtown Ballroom, the Edgar Allan Poe House and the B&O Railroad Museum. 

It would link Hollins Market and Pigtown directly with easy access from the partnership’s other five neighborhoods. Advocates say it would improve the quality of life in the neighborhood—the primary purpose—and find a way to take advantage of the inherent historical attractions as well.

Some time ago, the greenway idea came to the attention of Caitlin Doolin, the city’s pedestrian and bikeway planner. She surveyed the route and found it had a superstructure to build on.

"We walked it about six months ago," she said. "We realized it had a lot of good bones to that corridor for that project. We said, 'Let’s do it. Why not?'"

Bif Browning, one of the partnership’s leaders, and others knew from the start they had an ally in Rodney Carroll, the sculptor who crafted the William Donald Schaefer statue at the Inner Harbor.

Carroll had taken the first steps years ago, converting an eyesore into a celebration of the arts. He replaced a trashy dump with eight or 10 of his glittering, angular evocations. Kids and their parents, random passersby and others can conjure their own Star Wars and Samurai fantasies.

Carroll gives guided tour tours on occasion. The people include, most pleasantly for him, younger art lovers who may never have been to a museum.

"Kids come back and ask if they can see everything again. Sometimes bring their parents," he says.

The art has a lasting impact on kids. Days or weeks later he overhears some of them back again, interpreting for their friends.

"Here’s a Samurai cutting somebody up," Carroll says, quoting one of the young guides speaking authoritatively to his friends.

The real life effect is striking as well, he says.

"The people will tell you, I just love walking by there," he says "These kinds of pockets would be a great benefit to the city to have more of them."

The partnership sees Carroll’s extraordinary gift as the central node of the South Arlington Avenue greenway. Carroll says the plan, recently endorsed by City Hall, has a wider daily significance.

"It really acts as a calming environment," he says.

Planners think the greenway will make real commerce – commercial and human – easier in many ways.

"It’s just a smart connector that will really allow the power of all seven neighborhoods to be united by a common thread," explains the partnership’s Browning.

Neighborhood residents, having had no reason to venture out, have become almost shut-ins over time. The greenway, with shade, plantings and a new walkway, would entice them to come out again, advocates say. Tourists would find an increasingly shopper-friendly Washington Boulevard. Old and new would have access to new establishments in the Pigtown and Hollins Market, Roundhouse neighborhoods. The renaissance of dancing at the Mobtown Ballroom would seem even more inviting.

That’s the theory.

A local restaurant owner, Robert Lee, known as JR, likes the idea. More than that he marvels at the Partnership’s new creative energy. And the follow through.

"People, instead of listening, they’re out there making stuff happen. So we don’t have to wait another 20 years for our kids," he says.

JR, himself, organized a bike rodeo for kids. Why not inject a dose of manners? Why not make the avenue safer for new users – walkers and bikers?

The greenway idea has a major ally in the B&O Railroad Museum. It would run directly behind and west of the museum. Arlington Avenue crosses the B&O tracks where tourists get short rides.

Courtney Wilson, the museum’s director, says his staff is on board. He’s all about trains, of course, but foot traffic will be helpful for his visitors.

"Pedestrian traffic around the museum is wonderful. We’re in a situation here now where people want to go to a destination restaurant. But they have to get in their car," he says. "I think it would be wonderful if Hollins Market area came back if Pigtown continued to thrive. They could literally walk around the west side of the museum, have lunch and came back."

The greenway, then, might play an important role in the museum’s emergence as what he called "a major, major anchor" for the community. The partnership, he says, has given his museum the sort of spark JR sees in the greenway project.

Art and history and industry – not to speak of commerce – might coalesce further if the greenway project moves ahead. Rodney Carroll says its back to the future, back to the importance Mayor Schafer attacked to neighborhoods.

"Back in the day people celebrated neighborhoods," says Carroll.

And today so will the new greenway. The city has applied for a development grant. Doolin, the bike and pedestrian coordinator, said a yes or no to the project should be heard in September.

This special series on the Southwest Baltimore Partnership is made possible with grant support from Patricia and Mark Joseph.

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