It Seems Seams are Better than Borders

New bridge North Parkway 2
New bridge over Northern Parkway (and a reminder of the “gap” between neighborhoods)

“I don’t go below Northern Parkway.” It’s a statement and/or sentiment I’ve heard numerous times from some Jewish residents of Baltimore County. Northern Parkway is what visionary author Jane Jacobs calls a “border vacuum,” a feature of the urban landscape that separates communities, often along racial and social-economic lines. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a border vacuum between affluent or upwardly mobile (largely white) gentrifiers as well as vibrant institutions like UMMC and poorer (mostly black) residents of West Baltimore. Another vacuum is York Road at Northway where, separating Guilford from nearby Wilson Park, there is quite literally a stone wall and, ironically (perhaps) due to traffic flow, two signs reading “DO NOT ENTER.” (Walk 0.3 miles from the tulips of Sherwood Gardens to Mid-Atlantic Muffler and Brake and you’ll see what I mean).

Still another powerful border vacuum is Falls Road. You may recall the scene in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, when a car full of teenagers drive from Northwest Baltimore to crash a party in Ruxton. As they cross Falls Road they call out “Get ready, folks, Jews are coming!” (Ruxton is the neighborhood through which the light rail runs but that famously prevented a station from being built there). Consider also the border vacuum which nearly got built (but didn’t), the highway along the inner harbor which would have precluded so much of Baltimore’s downtown development. In 2013, urban planner Marc Szarkowski wrote a comprehensive 10-part series on Baltimore and dissolving border vacuums if you want to learn more on the topic.

In Reservoir Hill, once Baltimore’s urban Jewish epicenter, we are nearly surrounded by border vacuums. There’s Druid Park Lake Drive to our north, transformed after WWII to a major thoroughfare dividing the neighborhood from the park. To the East we have the JFX, the I-83 corridor which exacerbated the geological barrier of the Jones Falls by adding asphalt and concrete. Finally, to our South we have North Avenue, once a vibrant commercial corridor that marked the city/county line. But (recently-demolished) Madison Park North, an ill-conceived “superblock” of mid-twentieth century urban planning, stymied pedestrian and car traffic on Bolton Street between Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill. The Spicer’s Run development returned the favor decades later by carving out a new superblock, adding brick walls and iron fencing to underscore the vacuum between the two neighborhoods.

All three border vacuums are being reconsidered in light of more enlightened trends in urban planning. The Big Jump experiment has temporarily stitched together Remington to the East with Reservoir Hill, North Ave. near Dorothy I. Height elementary school is slated for redevelopment, and the city council – with support from a new ordinance to encourage more bike and pedestrian traffic – is looking to expand Complete Streets to help graft our neighborhood back onto its expansive front yard: Druid Hill Park.

Northern Parkway may not be the geographical boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but it is surely a psychological border. It’s an imposing thoroughfare, nearly impossible to cross by foot in most places. I’ve contended in this column and elsewhere that Baltimore’s salvation lies in part in the softening of boundaries. One way to do this is to transform border vacuums into seams, points of connection instead of fissures. In her book the Death and Life of American Cities, Jacobs cites Kevin Lynch who says of seams: “An edge may be more than a barrier if some motion penetration is allowed through it – if it is structured to some depth with the regions on either side.”

New bridge North Parkway 1

Recently, I took my bike up the Jones Falls Trail. The last leg of this exciting project, from the South, is finally moving forward: a bridge over Northern Parkway which will bring cyclists, joggers and pedestrians over the car-filled chasm. I rode to the very end of the path, beyond the newly paved switchbacks near Sinai Hospital to a ledge overlooking the road. I gazed across the newly erected bridge into Mt. Washington and imagined (when it’s complete) riding into Mt. Washington Village. Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill turned their backs on one another years ago. We’re trying to change that. The County and the City of Baltimore did the same. We in the city are ready to go “above” Northern Parkway. If you live in Baltimore Country, I hope you can say the same!

A version of this piece will appear in Jmore.

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