Old wounds of a segregated city resurface in protest of Roland Water Tower park plan
Hoes Heights residents say eliminating the two small roads on either side of the tower cuts off access to their historic Black neighborhood, erasing the symbolic gateway to a beloved safe space
Above: Members of the Hoes Heights Action Committee. Top row, from left Eleanor Matthews, Janis (Teri) Logan, Quianna Cooke, Joanne Kent, Betsy Heeney. Below, from left Hana Morford and Jennifer Jarvis. Not shown: Katherine (Kitsy) Lee. (Fern Shen)
Ask the people who led the effort to save the historic Roland Water Tower – and who are now working to create a park at the base of it – and they’ll say they were meticulous about consulting all of the nearby neighborhoods.
“We bent over backwards to make sure everyone’s voice was heard,” said Mary Page Michel, who chairs the Roland Park Community Foundation (RPCF), pointing to outreach efforts that included meetings, fliers, signs on the tower, eblasts and online surveys to consider design choices.
But left out and disrespected is just how Quiana Cooke and some other residents of Hoes Heights feel.
They never signed off on a plan to eliminate two small roads on either side of the tower that provide vital access to their North Baltimore community, Cooke and others say.
They’re happy about the $1.5 million project that restored the 148-foot-tall structure, a city-owned landmark located at 4210 Roland Avenue at the University Parkway intersection.
But they say removing the roads that circle the tower (to make space for a pocket park) forces residents of their tucked-away enclave to drive out of their way and make dangerous driving maneuvers to enter and exit from either end of Evans Chapel Road.
“We have been registering our complaints about this. So don’t anyone dare tell me we are late to the party,” Cooke declared, as she and other members of the Hoes Heights Action Committee assembled at the tower recently to speak with The Brew.
“I am so offended by that,” she continued. “They come into our community and tell us what we want? No.”
Geography of Race
Sitting on the west side of the tower on the brick wall facing toward their homes, the residents expressed strong feelings about their neighborhood and why the blocked-off roads represent more than driving access.
Established by a formerly enslaved man, Grandison Hoe, the community attracted those who worked as cooks, nannies, gardeners and chauffeurs to the wealthy white inhabitants of nearby Roland Park.
“Riding the bus here was my symbol of coming into this historical Black neighborhood where everybody knew everybody and looked after everyone,” said Joanne Kent, a direct descendant of Grandison Hoe. “Now you’re closing a part of history that means so much to me.”
Coming past the water tower and through the gateway into Hoes Heights meant safety in a sharply segregated city where a Black person dared not set foot in the wrong neighborhood.
“You couldn’t go too far west or south to Hampden. And you certainly couldn’t go to 36th Street,” Dewey Avenue resident Janis “Teri” Logan said. “The KKK was in these places. It could be deadly.”
Coming past the water tower and through the gateway into Hoes Heights meant safety in a sharply segregated city
Nevertheless, the people of Hoes Heights thrived, becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers, Logan pointed out, “despite knowing we could never buy into those mansions or cross the invisible but deadly lines that surrounded us.”
Roland Park’s infamous racial covenants were then in effect – deed restrictions that prevented properties from being sold to African-Americans or Jews.
Joining in solidarity with the Hoes Heights residents on this evening were some neighbors from Heathbrook, the historically white community located further up Evans Chapel Road.
Younger people have since moved into both neighborhoods, diversifying the area. But the historic divisions baked into the landscape remain well-known.
Asked where the racial dividing line used to be, the group sitting on the wall answered nearly in unison, pointing to the road sign in front of them.
“Providence Street,” they said.
Symbol of Togetherness?
Asked to respond to these objections, Roland Park’s Michel began by explaining the history of the tower, how it was decommissioned in 1930 after Baltimore’s reservoir system was established, then used as a turnaround spot for trolleys and, later, city buses.
Notified in 2009 that pieces of the structure were falling to the ground, the city put a chain link fence around it. Soon there was talk of demolition.
The octagonal Beaux Arts style tower, clad in brick and topped with a green ceramic tiled roof, captured the imagination of Roland Park leaders. Stabilization of the tower and creation of a surrounding park were formally adopted and included as goals in the 2009-2010 Greater Roland Park Master Plan.
Next came private fundraising led by Friends of the Water Tower as well as efforts by lawmakers to snag public money.
In 2012, the state legislature approved a $250,000 bond bill. In 2013, the city diverted $337,000 (the estimated cost of razing the tower) to its restoration.
Planning for the park soon got underway, led by a steering committee with two members each from Roland Park, Hoes Heights and Rolden, the neighborhood along Roland Avenue just south of the tower.
“Why do we save the tower when it doesn’t provide water anymore,” former Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke asked last fall, at the ceremony to celebrate the tower restoration.
“We do that because the tower is now a symbol of the togetherness” of the community, she told the crowd.
At the event, organizers talked enthusiastically about the next step – building the park. But far from bringing togetherness, the plan was tearing the tower’s neighbors apart.
Guided by its landscape architects, the Steering Committee came up with alternative park configurations.
One was to leave the road intact on one side as a one-way entrance or on the other side as a one-way exit. Another version, the one ultimately chosen, eliminated both roads completely.
The committee conducted online traffic access surveys with links sent out through social media and to community association listservs. Some paper fliers were also distributed.
About 450 responses came back, about 10% of them on paper, with road closure favored by 78%. The results from Hoes Heights showed a slight majority, about 55%, approved of the design that eliminated the roads.
But Hoes Heights Action Committee members rejected those results, saying most of those polled lived in neighborhoods like Wyman Park, Evergreen and Hampden that did not use the water tower roads. The poll was conducted during the pandemic surge, they added, and most had never heard about it.
“If that was in some email, I never saw it, I get so many emails,” said Logan, pointing to her group’s own survey, conducted entirely door-to-door, which found that 86% opposed eliminating the roads.
What about Hoes Heights’ concerns about road access? Eleanor Matthews, another direct descendant of Grandison Hoe, said she and others have voiced them at public meetings and been ignored.
During tower restoration work when the traffic circle was closed off, she and her neighbors got a taste of the future. They have had to go down Cold Spring Lane and make a U-turn to come back up the hill and make a right on Evans Chapel.
Entering and exiting at the other end of Evans Chapel, onto busy 41st Street, is even more hair-raising, they said.
“It’s just dangerous,” said Matthews, a former Western High School principal who has lived in Hoes Heights for 79 years. “During rush hour, I just try not to go out.”
Hoes Heights is not the only neighborhood to feel left out by the process.
“Heathbrook will be permanently and directly impacted by the decision this committee takes, yet no one from my neighborhood was asked to sit on the committee,” complained Jennifer Jarvis, president of the Heathbrook Community Organization.
“They ignore any kind of pushback – that’s the strategy,” said Betsy Heeney, who moved to Heathbrook 10 years ago and said she at first supported the road closure but switched after she realized its impact on longtime residents.
District 14 Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents the area, says traffic-calming measures and other road design tweaks could address some of these concerns.
“I think the work we are doing on traffic enhancements sometimes gets a little bit lost in this discussion,” she told The Brew.
Another point of divergence is the question of whether the community needs a park at all.
“Our vision was to improve green space and create a community gathering place,” Michel said. “I was hearing about things like native species and increasing the tree canopy.”
She pointed to the community flea market and music concerts held at the restored tower in recent months and the excitement around the peregrine falcons nesting there.
But to the group sitting on the wall, there’s no pressing need for more parks – particularly one that would be in this case quite small. They pointed to existing neighborhood parks and green space they wish the city would better maintain.
Logan, who helped organize a recent flea market at the tower, said compromise is possible.
“They could close it off for special events or on weekends,” she said. “That would be okay.”
Cost and Responsibility
But according to Michel, the Steering Committee’s chair, the group ultimately “found no reasonable path forward to fund a safe, well-maintained road.” When things were leaning that way a year ago, and Hoes Heights residents were raising objections “we paused the process.”
There were other factors besides the survey results.
One concern is that the nameless roads at issue are not city roadways maintained by the Baltimore Department of Transportation, but something more like driveways, under the aegis of the Department of General Services.
The MOU agreement reached with DGS, Michel said, allows the Roland Park Community Foundation to be the fiscal agent for tower restoration, but requires the group to maintain the property at its base.
An MOU with the city requires the Roland Park Community Foundation to maintain the property at the tower’s base.
This was one reason for their road-closure preference, she acknowledged: to avoid the cost of and responsibility for building and maintaining a proper road in the middle of a park.
“Then there’s the fundraising,” she added. “It’s hard to fund-raise to put in a safe road vs. a community park.”
As Michel sees it, by employing good outreach, they did their best: “We knew not everyone was going to be happy which is why we were very intentional about making sure this was a robust process.”
She pointed out that part of this process was creating the steering committee with members from multiple neighborhoods, including Hoes Heights, whose two members signed off on the final decision announced in June.
That, however, is not a happy part of the story.
Need for a Reset?
One of these Steering Committee members was Hoes Heights Neighborhood Association president Lydia G. Wilson, who has not returned multiple phone calls from The Brew.
“Oh, she won’t talk to you, she’s exhausted, she worked very hard handing out fliers,” Michel said. “It was very hard on her having people so angry at her.”
The Hoes Heights Action Committee put it differently.
“We’re leaving her out of this, she’s been through a lot,” Logan said. “She was steamrolled by them and now she’s getting nasty-grams from Roland Park.”
The other Hoes Heights resident on the steering committee was landscape architect Zoe Clarkwest who came to deeply regret her vote and failure to convince the others that they were making a mistake.
“I raised the issue of race but they were very reluctant to talk about how race played into this,” Clarkwest said, becoming distraught as she spoke. “I’m so ashamed. I feel like this was just classic systemic racism and I didn’t have the skills to stop it.”
“I feel like this was just classic systemic racism and I didn’t have the skills to stop it” – Zoe Clarkwest.
There were other issues being missed, in her view, including increased development in the area that would make adding traffic bottlenecks unwise. But basically, despite good intentions, she concluded, the committee had a failure of empathy that had a lot to do with race.
“It’s hard for people who are not impacted by these things to think anything other than ‘Hey, this is a park, a park is good and these two little roads don’t matter much in the scheme of things,’” said Clarkwest, who is white.
Earlier this month, Clarkwest said, she wrote an email to lawmakers and the steering committee, laying out all these misgivings and recommending they “take a breath” and undertake a re-set.
“We’re coming at this from a place of love” – Mary Page Michel, Roland Park Community Foundation.
Asked about that email, Michel said she wasn’t aware of it (“over the three years of this, I must have had 1,000 emails”) and didn’t know about the Hoes Heights group’s strong feelings about being disrespected by Roland Park because of their race.
“I have not been contacted by them, really, so I can’t comment. But it’s never been our intent to make this about any racial tension,” she said. “We’re coming at this from a place of love.”
What, given the uproar over the park, is the next step?
Michel said Councilwoman Ramos is “stepping in,” meeting with the Hoes Heights community this week and taking charge of the issue from here on.
“We’re not shoving this down people’s throats, we haven’t raised a penny yet – anything that happens is years away,” she said. “We will look to Odette and to the city as to what happens next.”