Party Out of Bounds: Even next to a Wal-Mart drainage pond, the Powwow must go on

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 8, 2002

It’s Sunday morning, April 28, and it’s raining hard. A brown Bronco sloshes through puddles as it rambles down Insulator Drive in Port Covington. After passing a newly opened Wal-Mart, the Bronco comes to rest at the end of the road, where tiny Ferry Bar Park juts out into the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch, providing those in the know with the only beach access in the city. It may be a beach covered with urban flotsam – countless plastic bottles and crack-vial caps, a few syringes and dead fish, the carcass of a redwing blackbird – but it’s a beach nonetheless: no bulkhead, no pier, just rocks and sand and shallow tidal water.

An old-timer in a baseball cap gets out of the vehicle and surveys the view: a fresh cement walkway leading past a small runoff retaining pond down to the trash-strewn beach. The Hanover Street Bridge and Harbor Hospital loom across the water.

“Been coming here all my life,” he remarks as he strolls down to the waterfront. “People always trashed it up. But this looks good,” he adds, taking note of the newly planted saplings and shrubs all around. “You know, there’s good fishin’ down here.” He’s caught a few casting off of Ferry Bar Park in his time, and he rattles off some quick tales.

Fishing, swimming, rowing boats, cooking out, drinking beer, lounging by the water – regular fare at Ferry Bar Park for generations. Back at the turn of the 20th century it was the site of George Kahl’s Ferry Bar Resort, a destination for city dwellers who wanted to play on the water. And every year since 1988, on a Sunday in late April or early May, hundreds of people have gathered here for all of those things – plus live music – at the Intertribal Powwow, an outdoor festival inspired by the Kickapoo nation’s “all tribes welcome” powwows.

In a few short hours, the Powwow hordes are scheduled to arrive. “Well, I hope they have fun, and I hope they don’t mess the place up too much,” the old-timer says.

The forecast is calling for violent weather – a tornado watch has been announced – and even when the rain ceases and the sun comes out, high winds buffet the point as storm systems roll across the region. Around noontime, festival organizer Dan Van Allen postpones the Powwow until the following Sunday, May 5. But it’s too late. Enough devotees have arrived by early afternoon to make it a party.

“Powwow anyhow! Powwow anyhow!” some chant. Arabbers pull up at around 3:30, hawking paper cups of beer from a van (the event benefits the Arabber Preservation Society) instead of their traditional fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts. As the hours pass until darkness, more revelers – ultimately numbering around 300 – arrive and play in and around the water.

“It’s strange, strange, strange,” says one new arrival, “to come around that corner and see a Wal-Mart.” The store had its grand opening the weekend before and is part of a larger redevelopment project for Port Covington, formerly a long-abandoned railroad yard, by Starwood Ceruzzi, a Fairfield, Conn.-based real-estate development group. Veteran Powwowers are used to having the forsaken, vacant point all to themselves.

Adjusting to the sudden proximity of the megastore – seen by many as an icon of cultural homogenization and a killer of neighborhood and small-town economies – isn’t easy for some. The counterculturalists attracted to the Powwow don’t want the event to become just another thing that happens at a Wal-Mart parking lot, akin to the impromptu trailer parks that spring up outside the chain stores, or the “Rosser Rendezvous” of all-terrain vehicles held each year at a Wal-Mart in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anarchistic tendencies start to manifest among some of the partyers. “It’d be great to have a party on the ruins of a Wal-Mart,” remarks a shaggy-haired kid in baggy, tattered clothes who mockingly advocates “the destruction of civilization.” Others express resentment at what they view as private encroachment on public land. A woman named Josie is calling friends on her cell phone, urging them to come down to the ad hoc gathering. The party’s great, she says, but the park “sucks. There’s a Wal-Mart drainage ditch in the middle of it.”

That drainage ditch is the subject of mixed feelings among those with a stake in the future of Ferry Bar Park. The formerly federally owned spot was given to Baltimore in 1979, “with the requirement that we are going to keep it as a park forever and never sell it,” explains Mary Porter of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department’s Office of Capital Development. Many of the proto-Powwowers gathered there April 28 say they believe the runoff pond improperly lies on park property, and survey maps suggest they may be right. But several conclude nonetheless that the developer’s work improves the park overall.

“I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that the Wal-Mart is ruining the park,” says Van Allen, who also heads a recently formed group called Friends of Ferry Bar Park. “But I think they improved the park by expanding it and planting trees, even if they maybe did go a little overboard with that ‘sunken garden.'”

Van Allen’s “sunken garden” is actually called a “bio-retention area,” according to city planner Duncan Stuart, who says Starwood Ceruzzi’s efforts to control runoff from the site is “the best example I’ve seen of how to do it right.” The company’s development director for the project, Dan Waguespack, explains that the pond “catches water and allows it to infiltrate into the ground, cleansing it before it enters the bay, rather than letting it run straight down the storm drains.”

Thus, if the ditch encroaches into parkland, at least it’s for a good cause. No one at the festival had time to complain about it much anyhow. They were too busy having fun.

On May 5, the day of the rescheduled Powwow, hundreds gather again at Ferry Bar Park. High-school crew teams compete on Middle Branch early in the cloudless day, their races finishing right where the park meets the water. As the party gathers steam, children swim in the shallows of Middle Branch and kayaks and rowboats ply the nearby shoreline. A sailing yacht and a powerboat or two anchor off the point to enjoy the music in the waning sun.

Back when Ferry Bar was a resort, George Kahl billed it as “the coolest spot in Maryland.” Once a year, the Intertribal Powwow aims to keep it that way.

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