Jess Bither writes her way under the highway.
It’s difficult to view Round Falls from the highway overhead; it’s even hidden to runners along the Jones Falls Trail. Round Falls is out of view, not easily accessible, and unknown to most people in Baltimore. I first became curious about this not-quite-natural-not-quite-urban environment thriving underneath the Jones Falls Expressway while living in Remington. An alligator mural led me there.
Every time I exited onto 28th street from Interstate 83, I would pass by a wall on the right, very near where the communal art habitat, Open Space, used to operate behind an auto body shop. On this wall, the mural by John Ellsberry shows a group of alligators walking in a line, forming a beastly procession. At the stoplight, the alligators with their mouths gaping reminded me of the colorful diagrams in biology textbooks used to teach students about life cycles and food chains. One day while idling at a red light, I found myself wondering: Do these alligators want to eat one another?
At the stoplight, I could never pinpoint whether the tone of the mural was meant to be menacing or playful. I also wondered: Why alligators? Could the mural be an indicator of another ecosystem, another way of life existing simultaneously but out of sight, just beneath the concrete surface? I began to consider the possibility that the alligators would make sense if I did some digging and learned more about the surrounding area.
I dedicated an afternoon to flipping through guidebooks about Baltimore, hoping to uncover more about the river that 83 largely conceals. In one of the guidebooks I looked through that afternoon I saw a photograph of Round Falls for the first time. It was hard to believe that such a site exists almost directly beneath an overpass I regularly drove across. I also learned about the old Jones Falls Highway, the old above-ground railway (once with steam-powered street cars), and what replaced these conduits in order to better serve the city’s transportation needs. Browsing through the guidebooks made me realize just how many layers there are to this old city.
Round Falls is located just off of Falls Road near Wyman Park Drive. Along the Jones Falls Trail, you can peer through the brush and see glimpses of the river. In order to reach the falls, you have to venture down a steep path with a defective railing. You hear Round Falls before you see it. The sound of the falls and the traffic rushing overhead mesh together, becoming indistinguishable from one another, forming white noise for daydreams to nest in.
Round Falls is man-made. It was created during the 1700’s to help power the nearby mills, which produced grain to feed a growing population. In 2001, developers Ted Rouse and Bill Struever worked with volunteers to build a wooden deck overlooking the falls. Before the deck was built, there was no easy way to view Round Falls. Round Falls no longer serves its original purpose; it no longer provides power. Now the falls and overlook attract casual sightseers as well as those interested in bird watching and geocaching. Geocaching is like a game of hide-and-seek using GPS coordinates. One team hides a cache and posts the coordinates online so that another party may locate it.
I imagine most people come to Round Falls to briefly escape from the buzzing distractions of usual 9-to-5 life. It’s easy to lose track of time and feel as if you are far from the hectic cityscape… breaking out of the circuit momentarily. The cool air floating upwards to meet your face is refreshing, and it doesn’t smell as bad as you would think. The blue-green water is inviting as long as you divert your attention away from the mounds of trash and the plastic bags that choke the river in certain sections.
A quote from one of the guidebooks, Walking Baltimore, came to mind as I poked about the debris: “The river is in some ways a microcosm of the city itself–exceedingly beautiful in spots, terribly neglected in others.” Round Falls embodies this sentiment perfectly. The wooden deck overlooking the falls is in disrepair. There are no lights or signs to help guide you. Although the space is certainly neglected, it is hardly dead. Round Falls is an in-between space. More than a decade since the overlook was built, the site now exists in a sort of afterlife, not easily visible but not completely forgotten.
In Baltimore, the same canvas has been used over and over. Etchings from the past and present converge and form a tangled narrative. Italo Calvino wrote in his novel Invisible Cities that a city’s history is like the lines of a hand. One must traverse the contours of a place in order to fully illuminate it. Rather than settling with what is written in guidebooks, look to the scrawls left behind on the sidewalks, streets, and beyond, off the beaten path.
I urge you to avert your gaze from your maps application on your smart phone. Silence the guiding voice. I am not suggesting you be careless and become lost. Rather, this is a plea for awareness. Instead of viewing landmarks only on a computer screen or through the window of a vehicle, get close. Get curious. On your usual route, take three rights instead of a left.
Jess Bither is a recent MICA graduate with an MA in Critical Studies. She writes on art, film, and visual culture. She also writes short fiction and poetry. She lives in Baltimore.
Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.