Halcott Square: A model pocket park, off the beaten path

Written by on July 24, 2013 in Featured - No comments

The Duncan St. Park is the perfect place for neighbor Kearstin Burger to release a stranded caterpillar. - Photo by Erik Zygmont

Photo by Erik Zygmont

Halcott Square, also known as the Duncan St. Park, is a tidy, tranquil and well-hidden spot.

Once the site of a stretch of seven row houses, the park, filled with well-grown vegetation in brick beds raised 2 to 3 feet off the ground, is a place for passive recreation.

“I think it’s always a degree or two cooler in here, but that might be psychological,” says Steven Young, a teacher of Russian and linguistics at the University of Maryland Baltimore City.

The park is not something that the average Baltimorean might drive by on the morning commute. It’s tucked away on the 100 block of S. Duncan St., a north-south alley street between S. Chester St. and S. Collington Ave. It has small, walk-in entrances, and there are so many plants it looks as much like an ornamental garden as a park.

Young’s home abuts the northwest corner of the park, and he has been one of its unofficial caretakers more or less since he moved in, in 1992.

The park was actually established in 1977, thanks to the efforts of the late Charles Halcott, for whom it is named, and his wife, Mary Halcott, who still lives a stone’s toss from the park and will turn 94 this year.

“They spearheaded this,” said Young. “They got the city to build this.”

The row houses that once stood on the site of the park had been abandoned for several years, and there were a few cases of arson, said Young. The Housing Authority took over and razed the properties, leaving an empty lot.

The location was just south of some elderly housing units managed by Jubilee Baltimore.

“The idea was they could just stroll down here and relax,” said Young, “which is why it was designed as a garden and not an active park.”

Today, Young notes, the park sees a lot of use from the young families that live on the 100 block of S. Duncan St. There is no playground equipment, but children ride up in their big-wheels and tricycles.

“As that has occurred, the more dysfunctional usage has disappeared, which is good,” Young said, noting that the park has, at times over the years, been a late-night haven for drunks and drug users.

The Butchers Hill Association also hosted its annual potluck supper in the park last Friday.

The lush vegetation includes a Yoshino cherry tree (purchased at half-price from Glyndon Gardens nursery by the Butchers Hill Association), a pyracantha shrub trimmed in topiary-style, hostas, and butterfly bushes. Much of the vegetation was donated by a retiring horticulturalist from Cylburn Arboretum. The retiree’s plot of plants, Young recalled, was in a “dicey part of West Baltimore.”

Young’s friend and fellow Duncan St. Park enthusiast, Toni Francfort, was undeterred.

“She said, ‘Steve, get your pitchfork, we’re going to West Baltimore,’” laughed Young.

He recalled that he and Francfort spent that whole summer in the late 1990s adding plants to the garden.

Later, Francfort and her husband dug up wild amaryllis bulbs on their rural New Jersey property and re-planted them at Duncan St.

Young said that the park has benefitted from from the help of various people over the years, from wood turner and Butchers Hill resident Mark Supik, who fashioned the Brazilian-hardwood benches, to the “neighborhood kid” who helped Young plant the Yoshino cherry tree several years ago.

Young noted that the city-owned park should soon be transferred to Baltimore Green Space, a land trust for community farms, gardens and green spaces.

“From what I understand, the city has agreed in principle to the transfer, and all that’s left is paperwork,” he said.

by Erik Zygmont

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