Among the — I suspect many — things I do that drives my wife crazy is talk incessantly about an intersection near our house. The intersection of Madison Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive has been under construction since 2016 — and was finally completed in November!
Frequently, over almost two years, I would say something like, “I was walking the dog, and the crew was out working on the stoplights today.” Or, “they finished the brick path!” Or, “they finally redid the tin blue roofing under the arch.” And Miriam would roll her eyes, smile and pray they’d finish soon just so I’d stop talking about it!
In 1860, the City of Baltimore and Mayor Thomas Swann dedicated Druid Hill Park, one of the oldest public parks in America. For about a century, the grand entrance to the park could be found at Madison Avenue, where the northbound streetcar turned toward McCullough at the majestic sandstone archway bearing Swann’s name. From the archway, families with children could walk from what’s now called Reservoir Hill straight into the park and stroll up the tree-lined and elegant stone-paved mall behind the conservatory toward the boat lake. The relationship between the neighborhood and the park was seamless.
But in 1961, Baltimore dedicated the Jones Falls Expressway, access to which from Greater Mondawmin included a triple-level interchange. Great care was taken to move cars with rapidity past the park toward the highway – hence Druid Park Lake Drive was born. The park, once fully integrated into its surrounding neighborhoods, was now amputated from them, leaving future generations in Auchenteroly Terrace, Liberty Square, Park Circle, Woodberry, Hampden and Reservoir Hill scratching this green phantom limb.
When Miriam and I lived on “Lake Drive,” we used to chuckle that getting the grass mowed in the median between our home and the street meant calling the Department of Rec and Parks, because the park service retained responsibility for green space on either side of the major traffic artery, which had been routed straight through the southern portion of the park.
To this day, Maryland’s Department of Transportation focuses primarily on moving automobiles, not human beings, from place to place. Walking, jogging, biking, pushing a stroller or walking your dog – these are a secondary concerns. That’s why I’ve been so excited about the intersection at Madison Avenue. The park is our front yard, but for years, we’ve had only two pedestrian crossings to the park from the south, each more dangerous than the next. Our first act of advocacy upon moving to Baltimore was, with the help of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, to guilt the city into repairing the broken walk signal at Linden Avenue. The message sent went something like this: “The new Beth Am rabbi is running across four lanes of fast-moving traffic with his little kids.” The signal was fixed within a week.
For as long as there has been human civilization, there have been roads and intersections. In rabbinic literature, these are rightly seen as liminal spaces, places of transition where values and priorities are clarified. The Talmud (Ketubbot 17a) stipulates that if a wedding procession meets a funeral procession at a crossroads, the wedding takes precedence. Each are important, but joy and promise demand more immediacy than sadness and loss. I wonder how many couples, Jewish and not, walked together, holding hands and smiling at the undulating grassy landscape before them as they passed beneath Mayor Swann’s arch during the century before the JFX was built.
The new intersection is pretty nice, as intersections go. They installed classy, historic-looking lights and walk signals and removed the yellow stoplights which had been haphazardly strung across the road. Most important, they added an accessible crossing with lines repainted so traffic has to stop further back. Now distracted or aggressive drivers are much less likely to hit my dog or my kids when we cross. It’s a step in the right direction but much more is needed to truly rethread the park with its surrounding neighborhoods.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on TheUrbanRabbi.org. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.
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