A new pocket park in Baltimore helps to ignite a neighborhood revitalization.
By Kim O’Connell
On a corner in Baltimore surrounded by vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, Gold Street Park is easy to miss. Built on a former coal yard in the neighborhood of Druid Heights, the pocket park features a winding brick path that leads to a circular gathering space with a starburst mural at its center. Steps along one edge can be used as seating or a de facto stage, and the simple planting scheme includes a few rose bushes and serviceberry trees.
Druid Heights is a historic African American community that once had a thriving social scene, where the jazz great Cab Calloway sang “Hi De Ho Man” in clubs, and where well-to-do Black families raised their kids. In the late 1960s, the uprisings that followed the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination led to a period of urban disinvestment from which the community is still working to recover. A local nonprofit, the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, is taking a holistic approach to revitalization through real estate development, food and career assistance, and incentives and paths to homeownership.
Among the barriers facing Druid Heights is a lack of green space: Tree canopy coverage in the community is 14 percent, just half of the city’s average. To remedy this, the community partnered with Byoung-Suk Kweon, ASLA, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Maryland, on a green community master plan that includes the development of both pocket parks and larger green corridors and connections.
Gold Street Park is one of the first such parks to be realized, a collaborative design by four of Kweon’s graduate landscape architecture students: Jason Poole, Jennifer Ren, and Laura Robinson, who did the original design, and Vince (Che-Wei) Yi, who did revisions and construction drawings. The starburst ground mural is by LaTosha Maddox, the development corporation’s artist in residence. “In the beginning, we went out into the community and to the community meetings and asked them what they wanted in the space,” Kweon says. “We thought they would want a community garden, but they really wanted a nice place to sit.” The students’ plan includes space for more plantings and meditative areas to be built over time.
“We phased it because we’re learning with all the parks,” says JohnDre Jennings, the housing development director for the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation. “Maintenance is a huge thing that we’re working through. We [realized] you have to have a maintenance plan and it has to be strategic.” According to Kweon, grant funding resources in Maryland tend to prioritize building community-managed open spaces versus ongoing maintenance. Across the street from Gold Street Park, several vacant lots will be redeveloped as Cab Calloway Legends Park.
“[Gold Street Park] is a great example of a community-led project and what can happen when you have a really great integration of a lot of partners,” says Robinson, now a landscape designer with the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center in Hyattsville, Maryland. “There was funding from the city, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and others, and there was the pro bono design from the University of Maryland. Even though it was a longer process [2015 to 2021, from conception to construction], I think it was worth it. It was so much more personal to the neighborhood.”