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Controversy Brewing Over Renaming Franklin Square

July 1, 2011

Ruth Kirk

If friends and admirers of the late Del. Ruth M. Kirk have their way, Franklin Square Park, the site for 16 years of a west-end Family Fun Festival Kirk helped organize, could be renamed in her honor. The park could become The Ruth M. Kirk Park at Franklin Square, or some variation of that.

But some neighbors of the park don’t like that idea. A possibly misheard mayoral statement and a hastily-passed resolution by an obscure city advisory board endorsing the name change has those neighbors concerned about the way the name-change proposal has been handled so far.

Established in 1845 and bounded by North Carey, West Fayette, North Calhoun and West Lexington streets, the historic park is the city’s oldest “square,” and was for decades a fashionable middle-class enclave. Kirk, who served six terms in the state house of delegates representing the 44th District before losing a primary election last fall, died on June 17. The Baltimore Sun reported that during Kirk’s June 24 funeral service, which was attended by a constellation of the city’s political elite, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake “earned a standing ovation when she said that nearby Franklin Square Park would be renamed in Kirk’s honor.”

“So there was kind of a big rush circumventing the process of how things get done,” says Scott Kashnow, a four-year resident of the neighborhood. “I think it’s ‘cause they want to announce this . . at the festival this year.”

Edith Gilliard-Canty, president of the New Historical Franklin Square Association, says she was at work on June 21 when Marvin “Doc” Cheatham called her with the proposal to honor Kirk in the park, but not to change the park’s name. “He was at my house,” she says. “My husband gave him the phone. He said, We want to do something in memory of Delegate Kirk, but we don’t want to change the name of the park–he was specific about that.” Gilliard-Canty says she told Cheatham that sounded good to her, and so Cheatham left a copy of the resolution with her husband. “I get home later and it says ‘rename the park,’” she says.

Gilliard-Canty called Cheatham back to register her misgivings, and Cheatham, she says, assured her that the resolution would be amended. She says she got an e-mail a bit later: “So it says Franklin Square, and they want to put a hyphen, and put her name underneath it,” Gilliard-Canty says. “But it’s not her park.”

Gilliard-Canty’s misgivings were appended to the resolution Cheatham forwarded to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which nonetheless voted to approve the measure on June 22. The vote was unanimous in favor of the name “Franklin Square-Ruth Kirk Park,” according to an e-mail from board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Wainwright to Kashnow.

Cheatham says he was hurried by the meeting schedule of the park’s board, which would not convene again until September. “My involvement was that we would able to do something at the park this year,” he says, adding that he became a liason to the neighborhood association because he chairs the 44th District Democratic State Central Committee. “We need to do something with her in reference to the park . . . we couldn’t do anything without the resolution.”

The actual wording of the resolution is not as important as having some resolution to send to the City Council, which can amend it to more closely reflect the residents’ wishes, Cheatham says: “There had to be a mechanism put in place so the Council has the capability to do something” in time for the Family Fun Festival in mid-August.

“[Kirk]’s been doing it for [16] years,” Kashnow says, adding that renaming the festival after Kirk would be a more appropriate tribute: “People in the neighborhood call it Ruth Kirk’s Festival.”

Kashnow says he and other neighbors thought the park-renaming effort was dead in the water until they started hearing at last week’s Roots Festival that it was a fait accompli. Several people with homes facing the park oppose the park’s renaming, he says, though most would like to see a memorial to Kirk placed in the park. On Monday, June 27, Kashnow began calling and e-mailing city officials to run down the rumor. “I wanted to find out, Is this real? Do I have to fight about it, or is it something that was just passing,” he says.

Ryan O’Doherty, Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman, says the resolution will be translated into a proposed ordinance and introduced at the July 18 City Council meeting. “The process for naming parks is a process that allows for public participation, which Mayor Rawlings-Blake encourages,” O’Doherty wrote in an e-mail to City Paper. “A resolution to name the park “THE RUTH M. KIRK PARK AT FRANKLIN SQUARE” was presented and then approved by the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board.  At the request of the park advisory board, the Administration will submit legislation to the City Council for consideration.  An ordinance must be approved by the Council in order to change the name of any park. The City Council’s judiciary committee will hold a hearing after the ordinance is introduced to the Council. Mayor Rawlings-Blake encourages citizens to participate in the public hearing.”

O’Doherty also says they mayor did not announce that the park would be renamed in Kirk’s honor, only that she supports the effort to do so. He e-mailed what he said was a quote from Rawlings-Blake’s prepared remarks: “And that’s why I’m glad to stand with folk like Doc Cheatham, Rev. Gilliard and others in support of the renaming of Franklin Square Park to The Ruth M. Kirk at Franklin Square Park. Considering all she’s given to us it’s the least we can do. The park can be part of her legacy, and a reminder of what it takes to be a leader.”

Nonetheless, some neighbors of the square are girding for a fight, feeling that the effort to rename the historic square in Kirk’s honor has got momentum from the city’s political elite. “I don’t mind doing something in memory of Delegate Kirk,” Gilliard-Canty says. “But I think changing the name of the square is impossible. A plaque, a tree or some flowers, to indicate she lived in the district, is what we would like to see.”

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