Saturday, September 29, 2007
Righthand Rule: South Baltimore No-Go Zones Part 1: Swann Park
Swann Park shares the end of McComas Street with a lumberyard, a petroleum distribution center, and seven rowhouses. The park is next to a former Allied Chemical pesticide plant, now owned by Honeywell. It was shut in the 70s, reopened, and shut again in April '07 when the soil tested positive for contaminants.
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At the south end of Light Street, go two streets west to Hanover Street and keep going south, after the highway, following the Right Hand Rule, it's the first right. The gate's still open, even though the sign says it's closed. The view here across the water of the abandoned Westport Power Station (as seen in Twelve Monkeys) is framed, on one side, by the spaghetti tangle of the 95/395 junction, suspended over the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, and on the other side, by a disused CSX railroad bridge, with a rotating center for ships that never pass.
Desire Lines always lead to gaps in fences: a path of flattened grass heads into the woods up the embankment, through the chainlink and opening onto the rail line. The tracks are bordered on the other side by the lumberyard, and they continue across the bridge. I'm standing there for several moments, trying to decide whether to ignore the sign and the rotting wood, and step out onto the bridge, when a boat cruises into view.
After walking through the open gate of a closed park, along a path through a broken fence, to the edge of a crumbling bridge that leads to a shuttered power plant, you realize there's always another layer. The No-Go zones are nested like Russian dolls, but there's no deterrent quite as powerful as the feeling that you're being watched. I'll come back when there're no boats.
Riding out of the park, I see two kids playing in front of the rowhouses. The older, chubby one shouts at me: 'There's arsenic in there!'. Meeting minutes from Allied Chemical seem to indicate that the someone was aware of the presence of toxins in the soil as far back as the 1970s, but the park was allowed to reopen anyway. The current proposal asks Honeywell/Allied to perform their own tests at the park. But There's at least one rogue Environmental Toxicologist interested in doing independent oversight to find out the exact extent, and effects, of the contamination. The Baltimore City Health Department has a blog with regular updates on the site's status. 'I know, be careful' I say, I'm not about to tell him that there's chromium in there too. 'Jimmy goes in there anyway!' the younger kid with the mullet says, as I ride back up the hill.