Bay Journal

Discovering Leakin Park

A maligned park deserves a new look

  • By Rona Kobell on November 21, 2014

On Monday, I had this article published in Slate on Leakin Park.

Leakin Park, for those who don’t know, is a 1,216-acre wilderness park in West Baltimore. It has a nature center, train rides, an art walk, great hiking, streams for catching crayfish, old trees, a restored mansion and a 15-mile bike trail.

But most people know Leakin Park as the place where West Baltimore buries its dead, as the Slate headline succinctly notes.

I have written a story on the park for the Bay Journal, and it will run in the coming months. I pitched it to Slate as well for two reasons. One, a compelling podcast, Serial, features the park prominently; a murder victim is found there. And two, I knew that the city, specifically City Parks recreation Coordinator Molly Gallant, had been working very hard to get people to know the park as something other than an unseemly graveyard.

I came at the story with two questions: How true was this legend of the bodies of Leakin Park? And true or not, how does a city park overcome its bad reputation?

Perhaps it’s better asked this way: What if your city’s forefathers left you the gift of a wilderness park and no one showed up to use it?

I was happy with the way the Slate story turned out, and I am thrilled that people are sharing it. Then WBAL Radio called me to chat about it. I was glad to talk to them, but, unfortunately, the moment I began to talk, someone started vacuuming upstairs (I work from home) and I got flustered. The interview went well, but I didn’t get to say what I wanted, which was this:

Whether you live in Baltimore, or Lynchburg, or Harrisburg, or Washington, chances you live near an under-visited or underused green space. If you choose to be afraid of it, then you are letting fear win. Those who commit crimes and pollute are keeping you from enjoying the green spaces that are yours. They are yours because you have paid for them. And because you pay for them, and have been paying for them, they have become free to you.

Perception is not always reality. You obviously need to be smart. I do not like to bike alone in any park. Others may choose differently. As a woman, I feel safer biking alone in crowded neighborhoods. But it saddens me how many Baltimoreans were afraid of this beautiful park simply because of a reputation. And I, whether I was aware of it or not, was one of them.

So, to the first question, yes, bad people dumped bodies in Leakin Park for decades, though they do it rarely these days. To the second, how do we change a park’s reputation, the answer is that we change it by experiencing it ourselves, and we change it by having a dedicated city and county staff that cares enough not to give up on our parks, either.

Several years ago, when my husband and I moved to South Baltimore, we decided to take a walk on the water. We got kicked out of Harborview, which now has a public promenade but didn’t then. So we thought we’d try the Middle Branch, just a couple miles south of our house. Had we been from Baltimore, we would have known better, but to us, it was just a quiet spot on the water.

Middle Branch Park wasn’t much of a park then. It was a stinky, fetid mess, filled with drug paraphernalia and plastic bags and the remnants of homeless camps. After a few minutes, we were back in the car. I didn’t give Middle Branch another thought.

Then, two years ago, Gallant invited a bunch of us to Middle Branch Park for a canoe trip. I couldn’t believe what I saw. A clean path around the river. Beautiful views. No trash. Granted, it still didn’t smell that great, but there’s not that much a city parks staff can do about decades of industry lingering in the air.

I have no idea when Middle Branch Park got nice. I had given up on it, and many Baltimoreans hadn’t even given it enough of a chance to give up on it.

No more. Last year, I promised myself we would get out to all the parks around us - both to get my children out in nature, and because, well, they’re free and life is expensive. So far, we’ve made it to a lot of them. But thanks to the lessons of Leakin Park, I have a lot more city parks to add to my list.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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