︳‘Ghost Rivers’ Visualizes a Mile-Long Stream Buried Deep Beneath Baltimore
︳How much do we really know about the land we walk on each day? For those of us in urban areas, pavement and buildings mask what were once prairies, forests, or glaciers, with any natural terrain often disguised in swaths of concrete and blacktop.
But in some cities, the remnants of the former landscape still haunt the streets. From Paris to Auckland to New York, communities are deciding to daylight the streams and rivers that were buried underground during development as a way to reduce pollution from urban runoff and prevent disastrous flooding. Baltimore alone is home to nearly 50 waterways that run for miles across the city—including the well-known Jones Falls that flows beneath I-83—and a new public art project is drawing attention to one of the bodies hidden below several central and northern neighborhoods.
︳The creation of artist Bruce Willen of Public Mechanics, Ghost Rivers is a multi-site installation and walking tour that visualizes the path of Sumwalt Run, which travels in culverts nearly 40 feet below Remington and Charles Village. “I first stumbled across this buried stream eight or nine years ago, on an antique map of Baltimore. On this 1870s-era map, a creek and a large pond cut across several miles of central and north Baltimore, not far from where I live,” Willen tells Colossal. “I was curious about this missing stream that once ran just a few blocks from my house.”
While walking around his neighborhood a few years later, Willen could hear water run in the storm drains when he reached lower elevations, which revived his interest in the hidden streams and instigated Ghost Rivers. Ten installations currently comprise the project, which overlays a wavy blue line on the pavement to help visualize where Sumwalt Run once was. The stream is shown haphazardly cutting through the center of an intersection and across roadways, revealing an inherent incongruity with Baltimore’s grid and urban life.
︳Thanks to support from the Greater Remington Improvement Association, Willen learned there was community interest in learning about the hidden waterways as he developed the project, and so self-guided tours became an important component of Ghost Rivers—for those of us not in Baltimore, there’s also a virtual option with detailed histories, archival photos, and maps. He shares about the tours:
“ Walking along the hidden path of the stream and imagining lost landscapes and ecologies really changes how you perceive the urban environment. When you encounter this permanent cartographic overlay and follow it through the city streets, these visions become more real, impactful, and deeply engaging.”
While not all cities boast installations to visually communicate their histories, reviving interest in these once-visible waterways tends to be part of the goal, something Ghost Rivers is particularly adept at. It reveals what’s been lost to urbanization, explains the effects of burying a body of water, and leads us down a path that envisions a more symbiotic, sustainable future.
The few remaining Ghost Rivers sites are slated for completion next year. Check out the project website for more information, and follow to keep up with his upcoming public artworks, including bus shelter seating and light installations.
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