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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Preston Gardens:Planted on Seeds of Racism

When one thinks of Preston Gardens they think of beauty, elegance, class, charm, and old world style planning. And why shouldn't they? After all, just take a look at the place and it's obviously true. When one looks at this diamond in the urban rough, one must ask themselves how it got here and why it stayed. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful piece of land and I wouldn't change a thing about it but its inception was a sad one, one that if learned about would at least want to change the name. I will put it bluntly; Preston Gardens is a product of racism and segregation. Plain and Simple
Most of what I write about is factual with my opinion thrown in, this time it's all facts, Preston Gardens came about during a period of extreme prejudice and White Supremacy were at an all time high in Baltimore, thanks in part to the Mayor at the time James H. Preston.Up until 1911, there was a thriving Neighborhood east of Mount Vernon, west of the Jones Falls, and north of City Hall and the Courthouses known as Gallows Hill. Gallows Hill had the same beautiful stately Row Homes as its neighbor to the west only there was one problem; the Residents were black. Mayor James H. Preston made no effort in hiding his hatred for anyone not English, German, or Scandinavian. Despite the residents of Gallows Hill being among the wealthiest Blacks in the City most holding College and Post College degrees, it was declared a slum for the mere fact Blacks lived there. Being just above City Hall didn't help the case for preserving Gallows Hill either. In that time it didn't look dignified to have your City Hall surrounded by a Black Neighborhood rich or poor.
Also placating into the fears of Mayor Preston was move of Johns Hopkins University from the center of Mount Vernon to its current Homewood Campus. Preston and his colleagues thought this was the final straw. Centre St. and Madison Ave were Downtown extensions of Druid Hill Avenue and McCollough Sts respectively. These two streets were making head lines as new Black settlement areas of West Baltimore. With Hopkins vacating its buildings in between West Baltimore and Gallows Hill it would just be matter of time before the blocks of Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument would become Black and therefore slums. It was all too clear to Mayor Preston and Confederate loving Cronies; Gallows Hill had to go. And just like that it was gone. Block after block of Black occupied Homes, Businesses, and Churches were reduced to rubble. It left behind Residents whose only crime was living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had they been White Mayor Preston would never have gotten away with this. Since Blacks at the time were denied conventional mortgages (it would be a good 55 years until the Fair Housing Act granted them this right) the now former Gallows Hill residents didn't have a foot to stand on.It's been almost 100 years since the Gallows Hill destruction and race relations have come a long way but nowhere near perfect. I'm writing this post as if it were a tragedy which it was and it should be considered that way as we approach 2011. But this was 1911 "tragedy" was hardly the term dubbed for the demise of Gallows Hill. Baltimore, which still considered itself a "White Man's City" was glad to be rid of the "slums" bordering City Hall and Mount Vernon. Mayor Preston was a hero of sorts, stopping the spread of Blockbusting before that phrase was coined.
Now what did the Honorable James H. Preston do with the Neighborhood he destroyed? Well for starters the name Gallows Hill can only be found in History Books and Maps that predate 1911. It's as if it was never there, and I'm sure there are those who convinced themselves it never was there. St. Paul St., the "Main Street" of Gallows Hill had become congested with traffic going Downtown (some things never change.) As the first Ford Model Ts rolled off the factory lines, they went straight to St. Paul St. After widening the road Mayor Preston decided against rebuilding Gallows Hill as a restricted White Neighborhood. He instead had a lush Park built and named after himself called "Preston Gardens" I mean hey, we have to pay homage to our "heroes" don't we? After the 1917 dedication of Preston Gardens it has remained a Community Center Piece whose history has been all but erased. Preston Gardens did do its job, Mount Vernon is still a majority White Neighborhood and City Hall wasn't surrounded by Slums. Mercy Hospital expanded and has continued to do so on land that was once Gallows Hill. Funny, Mercy wasn't shown to the residents of Gallows Hill and perhaps the largest institution built on its grounds bares its namesake.
As much as I've bashed the creation of Preston Gardens, I still think it's a beautiful place and I would like to see it expanded. The congested St. Paul St. splits into two "super boulevards" that only make traffic worse. By extending Preston Gardens to engulf the lower St. Paul St. and moving the front doors to Mercy Hospital to Calvert St. the St. Paul St. traffic can be stream lined to one narrowed route that can be repaved with tracks to accommodate the Charles St. Trolley.
Writing about Preston Gardens and its predecessor Gallows Hill was not easy, I like Preston Gardens but not what it represents, upon learning about Gallows Hill and its destruction, I will never look at Preston Gardens the same.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You should tell the rest of the story. The rest of the story is that those residents were forced to move to west Baltimore, which was another hotbed of segregation. Prominent churches like Bethel AME and Union Baptist were forced to move to Druid Hill Avenue.

The author of the book, where you got this information would be so proud.

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Anonymous said...

Extremely interesting read! I had no idea that is how it was created. The park really should be renamed Gallows Hill Park. Makes me furious that beautiful architecture was destroyed on the basis of race. Unfortunately whats done is done and all we can do now is learn from it. At least we can commemorate it with a new name: "Gallows Hill Park". Though i think eventually the neighborhood may have been destroyed anyhow. I mean, look how many blocks of rows have been built downtown within the past thirty plus years, substituted with high rises(ie Mercy expansion) or even parking lots. Luckily at least it is today a very pleasant and peaceful park.

Anonymous said...

James H. Preston was by far the greatest mayor Baltimore ever, and yet he has been the undeserved subject of some absurd controversy over his Preston's Gardens development. This has been a ridiculously bad rap. Preston dragged Baltimore kicking and screaming into the 20th century by making Baltimore the first American city to deal successfully with the advent of the automobile. His administration paved all the roads, covered the putrid Jones Falls saving tens of thousands of lives yearly from typhoid fever, developed the city's clean water filtration system, and brought culture to Baltimore by founding the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Museum of Art. He redesigned Mt. Vernon Square to the way it looks today and more than doubled the size of Baltimore from North Avenue to its present northern boundary (doubling its tax base in the process!) Preston was truly the creator of Baltimore's first Renaissance and was justly nominated for VP on the Democratic Woodrow Wilson ticket in 1912.

David Maribo said...

So, why was it called "Gallows Hill"?

David Wooddell said...

@Anonymous - Preston also brought into law the first segregation of housing in the Baltimore code. He was a fast friend of Germany, and welcomed into port, and celebrated the so-called civilian German submarine during World War I, which brought with it spies, money to pay the saboteurs of the Black Tom terrorist attack in New Jersey, and anthrax which was given to a doctor in Chevy Chase, MD to try to sabotage military horses and mules. What a wonderful mayor Preston was.