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Park Life

Just Another Average Summer Day in Druid Hill

Photographs by Frank Klein
Along the causeway a few hundred yards off Druid Park Drive, musician Andre Savoy sits on a park bench wielding an acoustic guitar with his newfound band mate and bassist, Will Cutchin. Breaking into a throaty version of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me," Savoy stops to gaze at the police helicopter circling overhead, squawking through a speaker that sounds like the Old Testament voice of God with a Bawdamoor accent: "We're watching you, we'll follow you wherever you go, so you might as well give it up. . . ."
Suddenly, a teenager on a motocross bike comes barreling across the lawn from the direction of the reservoir with Baltimore's Finest in tow, off-roading with a Dukes of Hazzard aplomb. Within seconds, the dirt bike cuts across the street, hits a curb busting a high wheelie, and disappears across the lawn into the urban vortex, as the cop car comes to rest on the curb, inches away from a man sitting on a bench, absorbed in his headphones, blissfully staring up at the sky.
At the reservoir, two women stand on the fence gazing at a sunset that bypasses the filters of the city's ozone cloud and settles on the water with a brutal grace. Laverne, sporting a new bright-red hairstyle states emphatically, "This is our spot." Asked what that means, Fran adds, "We come here to contemplate God's gift to the world during our lunch break." The two work at Johns Hopkins Hospital's emergency room registering new patients, and say they use the park as refuge from the stress of working in critical care.
On the main drag, sandwiched between the basketball and tennis courts, is the high-density preening area for washing, showing, and otherwise sporting a vehicle for the crowd, Druid Hill's most conspicuous tradition. In full view is a customized 2002 cream-colored Jaguar with "Lamborghini doors" that fold up and forward, like the metallic plumage of giant bird. The Jag belongs to Antonio Foster, owner of several local barbershops and a part-time model, who says the car is like a "moving party--every time I go to the gas station people crowd around. "This is only one every built like this, I did because they said it couldn't be done," he adds. Foster says he ran up a $15,000 bill at Impressions, a custom auto shop in Middle River, but the car certainly cultivates attention. A small crowd of gawkers perches on the other side of the road, clustering close for a bit of the overflow ambience, as well as a good view.

Taking the art of customizing to absurd extremes is Charles Buck, a Baltimore native who has transformed a Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon "worth about $500" by gracing it with 180-spoke rims, creating a sort of over-the-top silver metallic kaleidoscope wheel deco costing about $5,000. Asked why he spent so much money on such an ordinary car, he reiterates the basic axiom of high Druid Hill car culture: "You won't see another one like it."

Innovation is essential, given that standing out is what it's all about. The motorized gauntlet on the stretch of road winding its way from the tennis courts to a fork just past the reservoir, crammed with motorcycles, SUVs, and every other type of spiced-up vehicle, leaves little room for the ordinary. That's why Lamont Scribner developed the Monty bike, customized minibikes that he and his friends ride around the park as part of a loose-knit group called the Marauders. "Like the Hells Angels," he says, "but better." Scribner says that the minibikes "draw more eyes" than big motorcycles, and it's hard to argue that the sight of grown men squatting over silver-blue and hot-red minibikes cruising in groups like carburetor munchkins isn't a straight-up spectacle. Scribner's creative foresight bears out; as he pulls out into the road with a group of fellow minibikers, everyone watches.
At the basketball courts, history is in the making, says Derek Early, the spokesman for the self-proclaimed "Druid Park Legends." A stocky, full-time UPS driver, Early has been playing basketball at these courts for more than 20 years, and for the first time there are lights. "Used to be we'd have to quit during the day and get in a little before sundown," he recalls. "Now we can play at night." Surrounded by a group of middle-aged men preparing for the weekend pick-up games by shooting casually, Early boasts, "The best players in the city come through here, and we don't have any problems. Somebody acts up, we tell them to go home."
The tennis courts are also blessed with lights, and are as smooth and as well-maintained as any courts you'll find in the city. On Wednesdays throughout the summer, the courts are the home of the One up, One down Tennis Program, the brainchild of Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks program coordinator Mich'l Naugle. Combining wheelchair-bound players with nondisabled hackers in a casual round-robin tourney, the matches go well into the night. Other than the two-bounce rule, which allows the players in wheelchairs an extra bounce to hit the ball, the play is intense and hotly contested. "It beats the heck out of softball," says Mich'l Hylton, a dark-haired multisport athlete who was injured in a car accident 10 years ago. "With tennis, it takes less players, so it's more fun to play in a wheelchair."
Or course, the overlords of the park, the natural providers of the vernal ambience that makes Druid Hill Park worth visiting, are the trees--70-year-old white oaks and tulip poplars spaced, though perhaps not planted, under the supervision of legendary landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead, the original designer of Druid Hill, as well as many of the other parks in Baltimore. On the evening of May 2, a severe storm hit Baltimore and "felled eight to 10 trees in the park," says Joe Birch, a forester with Recreation and Parks. "It was odd, it was like something dropped. All the damage pretty much happened on a line." Asked if he was implying that the storm was a tornado, Birch was emphatic: "No, just severe. But we had over 400 service calls that night for downed trees." The National Weather Service Baltimore forecasting unit would neither confirm nor deny a transparent tornado, but viewing the fallen trees, it's hard to believe a slightly gusty thunder storm could have uprooted them. Still, given the vortex of human activity that occurs underneath their branches, perhaps they just got tired.

Sizzlin Summer 2004

Hot? Or Not? City Paper's 2004 Sizzlin' Summer Guide

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Cruel Summer There is No Merit Badge for Torture | By Gabriel Wardell

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A La Curb A Guide to Dining Outdoors in Baltimore | By Richard Gorelick

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By Stephen Janis | Posted 5/26/2004

It's possible on any given Summer day that Druid Hill Park is the best local approximation of the Greek city Arcadia, famed for its pastoral isolation. Even with the cacophony of car stereos, pick-up basketball games, and sneaker squeaks over on the tennis courts, it still manages to afford a bit of a refuge, particularly if you're willing just to cruise around the reservoir aimlessly, or find a spot among the tall trees and just sit. Of course, this pastoral vibe has an edgy flutter, verve, and energy that's strictly Baltimore, and it's doubtful you'll find as many mini-dramas and subplots a beach blanket's distance apart anywhere else, even through clouds of blunt smoke and summer rays.

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