Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Middle Branch Case Files: Reed Bird Island Park


DSC02327, originally uploaded by sevensixfive.

Alright, so, a friend of mine and I are looking at these off-the-grid type places in South Baltimore, these open spaces on the water that are kind of shaped by pollution, erosion, development, industry ... all for this project, which is for a gallery show that is in turn part of the Baltimore Festival of Maps.

And there's one spot we've been trying to get to, but we never make it there: Reed Bird Island. It always ends up raining, or it's getting dark, we visited all the other spots, but not Reed Bird Island. You can see the edge of it in this panorama.

Now Reed Bird Island is technically a city park, but only, as my collaborator Eric and I found out, because of a suggestion made by the Olmsted brothers (sons of Frederick Law) in 1904. They pointed out that erosion from development upstream at the Patapsco River was leading to the accumulation of mud flats here at the river's mouth. These were being occupied and used for dumping.

The Olmsteds, as part of their 1904 report on potential park spaces in Baltimore, suggested that the city get ahold of these islands, (their status was in doubt because they were basically new, free land) and cap them to form parks. They also pointed out that rerouting the new bridge to cross these things would increase their visibility and connection to the city. So after a few years, that's what happened.

On the north side of the river today, is Cherry Hill Park, which has a really active public pool, ball fields, and bike paths. But Reed Bird Island Park, on the south side, has no signs, no fields, and no paths made by anything bigger than a deer. You could drive by it on every side and never even know it's there.

(This is turning into a long story)

Anyway, so the other saturday, I finished something up early and the show's already up, but I'm like 'fuck it, I'm going to Reed Bird Island,' I hopped on my bike and rode down there. The only way in is just to go, I hit my brakes at the end of the bridge on Potee street, and just hauled my bike into the woods.

And inside, there are these spotty clumps of trees, with bits of afternoon sunlight breaking through to this impossibly lush groundcover, that turned out to be composed almost entirely of stinging nettles. And I'm wearing shorts, and my shins are getting shredded, but I'm powering through, because it's Reed Bird Island, and I've gotta see it, you know?

So I come over a hill, and I see this clump of stuff, and I think it might be landfill debris that's made it back to the surface, but then I see there's an american flag on top of it. And I'm not wearing my glasses, and I notice too late that there's a guy sitting there, kicked back in a lawn chair with his feet up. It's too late to do anything else, so I'm like 'Ahoy!', and he's like 'Hey, how you doing!'

We shake hands and introduce ourselves. 'I'm just thinking about getting my camp back together,' he says, and I see that there's a furnace, a washbin, a storage area, a compost heap, and tent made of tarps. 'I used to camp up on the hill last summer, but I moved down here when the weather started to get cold, went home over the winter, but now that it's getting nice out, I'm thinking about setting this up again.' It's been beaten by the wind, but the camp is still in pretty good shape.

We talk for a few minutes about the area, and I ask him about rumours that Cherry Hill Park is partly made of rubble from the demolition of the old Camden Yards. 'Oh yeah,' he says, 'everybody knows that.' 'Well what's interesting to see around here?' I ask him. 'Well,' he says, 'I've got a map.'

He brushes the dirt off the bin he had just had his feet up on, and shows me the map he had drawn on the lid with a sharpie, just a few weeks after he had first set up camp, in July 2007. 'Do you mind if I take a picture of that?' I ask.

So he gives me a tour of Reed Bird Island: the tubes coming out of the ground to vent methane from the dump below, the church he made on the hill from woven branches and a hand tied cross, the traces of older camps, the deer trails he uses to get around. 'I chased some poachers out of here last November, guys had branches and leaves tied to their jackets, "Get the hell out of here!" is what I told 'em'

He shows me the exit, back to Potee street, down one of the deer trails. 'If I were the city, what I would do, is buy this land and protect it from people building shit on it, protect it for nature.' I tell him that it's not likely anybody would build on it, the ground's too unstable, that's why the trees are spotty, and anyway, it's already city property, a park even. 'All the city cares about is making money,' he says, 'This is a park?' 'Yep,' 'Reed Bird Island Park, it's on Google maps'. 'Is that on the Yahoo, too?' he asks 'I'm gonna have to look that up the next time I'm at work.'

(I'm co-leading a bike tour of Reed Bird Island Park and three other little known waterfront openspaces in South Baltimore on May 24th, departing from the corner of Light and Wells St. at 5 pm.)

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