Baltimore Trees

Longing and Alienation

Sheri Parks

Baltimore is a majority African American city in a former slave state.  The juxtaposition of those traits have resulted in a tension between longing for and alienation from the environment. These are the stories of three Baltimore projects that, when combined, capture the nature of the uneasy relationship.

Baltimore Stories: Narrative and the Life of an American City
The children of the Barclay School laugh about a squirrel.  We have asked them to imagine a Baltimore they want –a utopian city.  We have brought along two artists to depict what they say.  They talk of squirrels so often that it becomes an in-joke, brilliant because for a squirrel one needs a tree. They spoke in singulars—one squirrel, one tree.

Smart Connected Communities
We asked about the changes that adults wanted in their neighborhoods. Many mentioned more green space.  They may not have known it but they live in a city that is verdant in other neighborhoods.  The major migratory flyway is the birthplace of residential redlining; the racial segregation map takes the shape of a butterfly.

Nest + Flow
We walk along the Gwynn Falls Parkway, part of one of the longest parkways in the country, designed by the Olmsted’s. We hear the roar of cars—Interstate Highway 83 is built partially over the wide stream.  Artist Jann Rosen Queralt and biologist Dr. Lea R. Johnson are showing us the green hidden from the motorists.

We pass the award winning Maryland Zoo, built on the land of a former plantation where slaves harvested the now-extinct Druid peach.  The large freed black, urban population was joined by other black farmers who moved north in the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970.  Yet for many, an agrarian past is ancient history.  When the March family opened a health food store in the underserved neighborhood, they found that many had almost no experience with fresh produce. 

The current Covid-19 pandemic has thrown racial and social inequities into sharp relief.  The ongoing work will be to examine how those inequities reach other aspects of our lives, including the impact and relationships with the environment.  In our discussion, we will discuss how underserved communities consider the environment in their daily lives.

7 replies on “Baltimore Trees”

The Baltimore Stories project has been so helpful to me as I’ve started working more directly with Philadelphia school children and their teachers. Thank you! I was struck by your comment at the end of the first short film about Barclay School that these students’ desires are being shared with policy makers/city planners. I am curious about the ways that the policy discussion can be an important way to point toward the impact of art-driven inquiry. That is obviously so important, but urban planners are famously not great listeners (even in a moment when they talk a lot about community involvement). How has that dialogue been happening between Barclay School children and urban planners? How is that for you as an intermediary/interlocutor for both?
I was so excited to see the short film about Jan and Leah’s CALL walk. I so very much enjoyed that walk. Will it or other CALL walks happen again? And, my real question: Can I come along? 🙂

Thank you for these insights into the work you’re doing and the context in which it takes shape. What was captivating to me (in the first video) was the play among the children and youth who offered input, and the vibrancy and vitality of their laughter. I wonder if the painters expressed a sense of how they tried to convey that vitality in what they painted? Their play is such an embodied, spontaneously and collectively generated expression, and I’m wondering in particular how different forms of communication resist flattening it.

Sheri your work is SO inspiring, I really look up to the work that you are during. My question is regarding the Barclay School Art Project–the resulting paintings, and the accompanying video, are so beautiful, and they also lay out very clearly a vision for Baltimore. I wonder if and/or how you are involving the municipal government, or other people working in urban planning, policy, etc? How do you ‘approach’ them?

To echo Partrica, this work is a model for participatory reimagining of cities. What struck me in the students’ ideas for transformation is how they knitted together as inseparable repairing deep structural inequalities with creating green places for community, recreation, and habitat for other species.

These videos are beautiful, Sheri. Thank you for sharing them. I’m curious who the “we” is participating in the CALL walks? Was it a first exploration for most of the participants on the walk or did those who participated have their own lived experiences of Druid Hill Park and/or narratives of its histories?

Sheri, The work of visualizing an alternative future shown in Baltimore Stories is quite inspiring. I, too, would be interested in learning more about the interactions with city planners. I was impressed, as the artists were in the video, that these students seemed mostly outward looking, caring about the society around them, but I also loved that they imagined a park that would allow them some of the same experiences that those who can leave the city for dirt biking in parklands get to enjoy. I hope their ideas can have impact.