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Trail to unite Baltimore City neighborhoods

Soon Baltimore City is going to be known for its green fields, clear streams and 14-mile long trail that connects 30 neighborhoods. The Gwynns Falls Trail, located off of North Avenue, is on its final stage of construction and is underway for a 2005 completion. The trail is for families of all incomes and is intended to remind the community that nature is not only in rural areas, but can also be found in the City.

"The idea was to create a recreational opportunity that could serve a very broad set of constituents, from folks who have $2,000 to spend on a mountain bike and want to get out there and ride, to folks who don't have a bike and want to get out and spend time fishing in the stream," Halle Van der Gaag, project coordinator for the Gwynns Falls Trail Council, said.

According to Bill Eberhart, acting chair for the trail council, the trail parallels Franklintown Road and starts at Lincoln Park, goes through various neighborhoods, ending at the Inner Harbor near the Maryland Science Center.The trail is filled with wildlife, trees and some fairly complicated bridges according to Eberhart.

"Some of these bridges are fairly spectacular… not the Golden Gate, but for a trail these are spectacular bridges," Eberhart said.

The trail offers areas for hiking and biking that take people through scenic and historic areas of Baltimore, including ruins of a mock civil war fort, a relic water wheel and 18th century plantations and mansions, according the Gwynns Falls Trail web site. A pavilion, amphitheater and restrooms were constructed near the Winens' Meadow Trailhead. Recently the pavilion was named after Congressman Benjamin Cardin for his dedication to the trail. Leon Day Park offers a playground and sport fields as well.

Eberhart said one of the original intents was to use park rangers from the state on the trail, however the government disagreed. "So the police department agreed to put a contingent of policemen, so we have eight policemen who patrol the trail," he said.

The trail's intent is to unite members from Baltimore communities through working together, meeting once a month and compromising on decisions.

"The non-profit community and the residents have attempted to participate in decision making about the actual alignment, the design, what kind of fencing was used, what kind of materials, where things were going to be placed and that's been somewhat of an evolution," Van der Gaag said.

While the trail gets hundreds of volunteers each year from various organizations including the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Eberhart said it has been challenging to find diverse groups of people who live in the city to work on the trail.

"The people in the neighborhoods use the trails, but this does not seem like the kind of thing they want to do with their time for whatever reason, which makes us do lots of soul searching of whether the trail council is representative enough or diverse enough," he said.

Van der Gaag said the idea for the trail originated from a Yale intern who wanted to create a linear greenway to connect Baltimore's parks and neighborhoods."It seemed like a relatively simple concept, however is a large undertaking," she said.

In 1998, the Parks & People Foundation, which also sponsors sport and environmental programs for children, formed the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. Composed of community members and local organizations, the council fund-raises, finds volunteers and publicizes the trail.

"The Gwynns had the most momentum for a number of reasons, partially because have the significant wilderness park up at the top 1,200 acres," Van der Gaag said. "And it was the most obvious connection through parkland."

One of the trail's growing events is the annual art show in October put on by students from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"It was kind of serendipitous. Three years ago [MICA] created a new department of environmental design. They took their interior design and other programs they had and merged them into this new department," Eberhart said.

One of the professors who worked for the new program was looking for a place to do environmental art, Eberhart said. Throughout the trail students would display their artwork for the public to observe."Last year we were very successful, we had quite a few artists," he said.

"[It's] an institutional arts event that people have come to know, they've come to love… a signature event," Van der Gaag added.

Budget Problems

However, despite efforts to complete the trail, with about three miles remaining, the program like many environmental programs in the area are facing serious budget cuts after the legislative sessions close in April.

"Nobody knows for sure, but everybody is pretty much prepared and bracing for the worst, which unfortunately will impact staff and program dollars maybe for one year, but we don't know," Van der Gaag said.

Eberhart said the cuts may slow down construction this year. He also said that it will probably take longer for the grass to be cut and trees to be removed if they fall because of the lack of money.

"A lot of the money for staffing the trail and doing things for the trail comes out of Program Open Space money, and that's pretty well cut for this year - at least the way it looks right now," he said.

Despite the cuts, Van der Gaag said the trail could potentially be completed next year. The part of the trail that is completed is open for recreational use, she said.

"It's really quite breathtaking when you're out there, you just of lose sight that you are in the city," Van der Gaag said.

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Transcription of Interview - People and Parks