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Commentaryby Stephanie Murdock10:07 amDec 8, 20230

Charm City Lights, appealing to cars and suburbanites, irks a Baltimore parks and youth advocate

Closing Druid Hill Park for a $10-a-car, holiday light show feels really wrong when so many city residents don’t have cars or access to well-kept parks and playgrounds and functioning public pools [OP-ED]

Above: One of the Charm City Lights displays now appearing in Druid Hill Park. (Fern Shen)

This week Baltimore rolled out “Charm City Lights,” a city-sponsored, drive-through, holiday light display in Druid Hill Park that will run through January 1 and cost $10 a car.

Maybe I’m being a Grinch, but I’m failing to see what is so “charming” about this taxpayer-funded expenditure.

How does it benefit city residents when 42% of the people living near the park (and 29% citywide) don’t have access to a car?

And how does the cost of this event make sense when neighborhood parks are suffering from decades of neglect and decay?

Back in October, the Board of Estimates quietly approved a request by Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) to spend $735,935 on this new endeavor.

This cost does not include the city staff time involved in assisting the out-of-state company awarded the contract, closing Druid Hill Park at 5 p.m. this month for all other users and towing cars after 3 p.m.

Who really benefits from this?

If we’re being honest, it’s likely to be suburban Marylanders who will hop right back on I-83 after they’ve “braved” Baltimore City.

Signs warn that Baltimore's Druid Hill Park is closed after 5 p.m. for a $10-per-car drive-thru holiday light display. (Fern Shen)

Signs warn that Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park will be closed after 5 p.m. for a $10-per-car drive-thru holiday light display. (Fern Shen)

“Cars Only” Except for Two Days

The display is no doubt pretty. It is said to feature more than 250,000 holiday lights, animated displays like “Toyland” and “Candy Cane Lane” and a 48-foot tall lit-up tree.

Believe me, I have no misgivings about city-sponsored events to boost community pride and spread holiday cheer. But shouldn’t access to the event at least be equitable, rather than favor cars?

There is one car-free night set aside for walkers (“Stride & Lights” on Monday December 11) and one set aside for bike riders  (“Bike & Lights” on December 14).

For the rest of the month, though, it’s only for cars – walkers, joggers and cyclists cannot participate.

And consider who is favored by the pricing. You guessed it: those in cars.

Who is favored by the pricing? You guessed it.

The cost for a car is $12.51 – $10 per car, plus a $2.51 fee.

But three people coming to see the display on foot (or by bike) must pay a total of $21.54 – $5 plus a $2.18 fee each.

A larger group of pedestrians could choose the “Family Pack” at $23.18 – $20 for up to five people, plus a $3.18 fee.

So, for a larger group it’s still cheaper to drive

During the month of December, cars parked in Druid Hill Park after 3 p.m. will be towed as part of the Charm City Lights event. (Fern Shen)

During the rest of December, cars parked in Druid Hill Park after 3 p.m. will be towed as part of the Charm City Lights event. (Fern Shen)

So much about this event feels so wrong.

Accessibility to Druid Hill Park for surrounding communities has historically been an issue due to the large multi-lane roads that surround the park which are treated like raceways and lack safe crossings. Instead of helping bridge this divide, the event only reinforces it.

• There’s no cash payment onsite. Tickets must be purchased in advance, whether online or at specific city recreation centers.

• Attendees “should have a MINIMUM of a half-tank of gas in case of a long wait time,” the website says, evoking the image of idling cars spewing clouds of exhaust.

• Posted signs warn that cars will be towed at 3 p.m., and people cleared out at 5 p.m., effectively closing the park at 3 p.m. for all users who arrived by car.

People do use this park on winter evenings – the tennis court and basketball court lights flicker on every night at sunset.

All this for an event that is not even free to taxpayers.

Basic Needs Neglected

It’s the irony of the situation that gets me.

In November, I saw firsthand the enormous amount of money and human capital expended on this effort as I drove through the park on a weekly basis on my way to Easterwood Park in West Baltimore.

After a state senator shoots down a West Baltimore skatepark, supporters push back (10/21/22)

Three public pools have yet to open, hanging residents out to dry (7/18/23)

I periodically clean up trash at the West Baltimore location where BCRP had once promised the community a new skatepark, basketball court and walking trails.

The project was unexpectedly called off in the summer of 2022 for what can only be described as political reasons.

easterwood 5

ABOVE: Dilapidated Easterwood Park playground with broken swing set and gouged play surface. BELOW: Glass litters the playground area. (Stephanie Murdock)

easterwood 4

It’s been more than a year since the project was unexpectedly halted, and absolutely nothing has changed in Easterwood Park.

The playground is still dilapidated and covered in glass, the trash cans are still overflowing, and no overall improvements have been made to the park. No clear plan is in place and no additional funds have been requested by BCRP to do any type of improvements in Easterwood Park.

In the midst of a “juvenile crime crisis” or more fittingly, a crisis of juvenile opportunity, I cannot understand why we are not investing our limited resources into healthy alternatives for our youth and at the least, “taking care of what we got.”

Skateboarder Proxy with a longtime community member, Regina Jackson. (Fern Shen)

Skateboarder Proxy and resident Regina Jackson attend a meeting last year in Easterwood to support a park for skateboarders. (Fern Shen)

Charm City Lights makes me wonder just how detached BCRP is from the needs of local residents and the reality of the recreation crisis that exists in Baltimore. What a waste of money. A skatepark would last for decades, not a few seasons.

As taxpayers and citizen advocates, we must question the decision to spend nearly three quarters of a million dollars on a temporary display that is not free or accessible to so many city residents when there are so many other projects and structural deficiencies throughout the park system that need to be addressed.

Remember how Rec & Parks was unable to keep three city swimming pools open last summer amid blistering heat?

As a park advocate for the last 20 years, I know that all that glitters is not gold.

Please join me in calling on our elected officials to demand increased access for Baltimore city residents to Charm City Lights, “Equity for Easterwood” and accountability for all park spending.

Stephanie Murdock is a Baltimore resident and president of Skatepark of Baltimore, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to building public concrete skateparks in the city.

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