A group raising money to buy land off Falls Road for a new park wants to create an inviting place of wonderment with rows of trees, small bridges and recreational spaces to play and rest.
The Roland Park Community Foundation also has a goal of inclusiveness as part of its guiding principle for the park, to be called Hillside Park, that will be located on 20 acres now owned by the Baltimore Country Club in the Roland Park neighborhood.
“For me, communities do not have boundaries,” said Rita Walters, a volunteer who has advocated for the purchase of the land for years. “When I speak of community, it’s really expansive. And that definition is Baltimore City.”
The foundation’s chair, Mary Page Michel, said the organization wants Hillside to be like Central Park in New York City. The late Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. — landscape architect of the highly used, popular park — saw parks as democratic, beautiful places that should be shared, Michel said, and Hillside Park will be one of them.
But in a neighborhood that was built under racial and ethnic exclusionary policies, historians and equity experts say the work to make the park welcoming needs to be intentional and explicit.
Roland Park Company, the neighborhood developer, shaped redlining in Baltimore and segregated housing policies nationwide. The company often dissuaded transactions with Black and Jewish people and investigated potential prospects for any indications of Black or Jewish heritage.
The country club did not accept a Black member until 1995, and it was not without opposition, said Paige Glotzer, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a book focused on the Roland Park Company called “How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960.”
“Roland Park segregation was part of a citywide and nationwide project of exclusion,” Glotzer said. “The foundation, the country club and Roland Park are all there because Roland Park Company directly participated in making Baltimore a segregated city and by making us as a segregated housing market.”
The foundation stressed that the park, while privately-funded and owned, will be open to the public and they are trying to spread that word. The group is about $1 million from its goal, and hopes to open the park in 2024. The deal will be finalized after the country club divides the property and finishes environmental remediation of the land.
The foundation envisions children in neighboring schools, such as Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, having the park as a site for outdoor classroom and recreation, Michel said.
“It’s not only to get people in this park, but also really helping to develop the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Michel.
Walters says the foundation wants to make sure that the branding for the park promotes the idea that Hillside is democratic, that there’s no doubt whether someone belongs there. The foundation has started to reach out to people of color and long-standing Baltimoreans; they want to learn what the communities need from the foundation and the best way of reaching people, Walters said.
They have reached out to Morgan State University’s landscape architecture program and other higher education institutions to invite them to become involved.
Before asking the community what they want to see in the park, the foundation needs to take a reparative approach where the foundation invites communities intentionally disenfranchised and marginalized to address the exclusionary history and find ways of healing, said Ronda Lee Chapman, an equity director. The foundation should document the policies, practices and people behind those decisions that led to the long-standing inequities in the neighborhood, Chapman said.
The park itself is already beautiful, she said.
“What about the political, the emotional, the spiritual healing that needs to occur?” said Chapman, who works at Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to ensure access to parks.
Part of the healing process is acknowledging the land’s history, said Ray Winbush, a research professor at Morgan State University. That can mean installing plaques and holding seminars that explain the impact the Roland Park Company and country club had on segregating the neighborhood and excluding Black and Jewish people.
He also said it should tell the story of how the landscape architect of Central Park may have called the park democratic, but did not acknowledge that building it displaced an entire Black community from its land. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., one of his sons who designed Roland Park, played a large primary role in the segregation of suburbs nationwide.
“America is built on a series of myths about its past,” said Winbush, the director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research. “And those are very, very powerful.”
Beyond that, Winbush and Glotzer said the foundation could have cultural programming celebrating Black and Jewish artists, observe traditional holidays and look into how the park will be policed and managed.
With the opening of the park still scheduled for closer to 2024, there isn’t a concrete plan for programming or plaques, Walters said. But she has faith that there is going to be something in the works.