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Retracing Steps: On the Shore at Middle Branch Park, Baltimore

In a metro area of 10 million people, side-skirting congestion and avoiding tolls

often takes priority over the long and winding road. With all the interstates and overpasses, I often forget that most metro areas became cities in the first place because of their access to waterways.

Alas, such is the case when we drive to Baltimore. Jump off 97 onto 295 inbound, and you know you’re only a few minutes from the stadiums and the inner harbor. Pass the iconic Baltimore smokestack, and it’s just moments. Cross your fingers there’s not a backup on Russel Street.

While this year has certainly brought me to many new shorelines on the Chesapeake, it’s also had me retracing some steps. Rewind to 2019 and I found myself detouring off 295 for the first time, onto Waterview Ave and towards Middle Branch Park.

Middle Branch Park is easy to miss, and some would argue it’s worth missing. Unless you’re interested in a few very specific activities. It connects to a number of the recreational trail networks around Baltimore, but it’s also one of the longest stretches of publicly accessible waterfront in the Baltimore area. An impressive, but oddly somewhat surprising distinction in a metro/ port city like Baltimore.

Despite being only one mile from the famous Inner Harbor area, Middle Branch has a distinctly different vibe from downtown. The waterfront has fantastic views of the Baltimore skyline, and offers one of only a few public fishing piers in the city (up to you if you want to eat anything you pull out). But you can kind of tell that it wasn’t always a park, and it doesn’t come as any big shock to find out it was once a bayside junkyard.

There’s no evidence of that anymore of course. Despite a rowing center, a public boat ramp and the trail network, it still feels “industrial”. It’s not dirty, it’s not rundown. But you can tell it has some history. And while it might not be a cultural hotspot like the nearby Inner Harbor, Middle Branch Park also has a connection to Baltimore’s arts scene. That’s how I first found my way to the shore here.

Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts works city-wide to bring public art offerings to the metro area. Again, while most of the action may be concentrated downtown and through major events like Artscape (waiting for its triumphant post-covid return!), their public art program includes permanent works, art happenings and temporary works on loan.

Temporary public work is where an artist like me typically gets their first big “break”, and BOPA provided that opportunity for me. For a few years, the public arts program produced an annual “Art on the Waterfront” collection of temporary public works at Middle Branch Park, installed across the park’s recreation areas. I had two pieces installed in the summer of 2019 along the Patapsco River in partnership with Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, and it’s no understatement that a lot of my current work is still informed by those early pieces.

The two pieces were the first in the Quality Water public works from Bay Fibers Studio. They were designed to be an ongoing series of site-responsive public works focused on the water quality of tributaries across the Chesapeake. Which is a fancy way of saying I wanted to go explore rivers and make art from what I found. A third piece was in the works to follow afterwards, but 2020 put it on hold and it was never resurrected. I guess you could say the project is still ongoing in fact, but it’s on a long hiatus. Just waiting on the next opportunity to present itself.

Quality Water was my first publicly commissioned project with a wide audience (I know, you probably missed it, and that’s OK). The project whetted my appetite for more public work, and 2021 saw me take in just about all I could fill in that department.

But Quality Water was also the first aspirations of a longitudinal project focused on the Chesapeake. It hasn’t panned out as widely as I dreamed it has (it still has potential in my mind), but it set the stage for engaging in long term projects with wider implications.

Fast forward to today. Here I am again, standing on the shore imagining where those pieces once stood, and collecting a water sample for the One Hundred Shores Project. Like I mentioned, you can tell Middle Branch Park has history. Not the kind of "here lies the remains" sort of history, but the kind of "back in my day" sort of history. I'm willing to bet it's changed over the past few generations, and it has the feel of a park that's ready to spring to life. I'm confident that my earlier work there was a part of that effort, and here's to hoping that post-covid, the efforts will continue. We could all use an alternative to the inner harbor madness, and maybe Middle Branch park can provide that change in the future.

You’re probably wondering (if you made it this far), "What happened to the Quality Water pieces?". Well, I’m happy to say they’re sitting in my garage, collecting quality wood dust.

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