Saturday, November 6, 2010

U.S. 1 Corridor Poems

Five poems in this collection are situated along the US 1 corridor in Howard County, Maryland and vicinity. These poems are: "Jessup," "The Tire Swing," "Patuxent Story," "Route 1 Bridge," and "Visiting Day." My interest in the Route 1 corridor between Baltimore and Washington is both professional and literary. From a geographical standpoint (I am a geographer by training and profession), the US 1 corridor in Howard County contrasts with the rest of the county. Much of the industrial and warehousing activities in the county are located in the corridor because of easy access to I-95, BWI Airport, and the port of Baltimore. Because of the emphasis on commercial and industrial zoning and development, residential properties tend to be of lower value. Howard County is one of the wealtiest counties in the United States, but the wealth and high average household income of the county masks low incomes, poverty, and households ekeing out a living. That side of life in Howard County can be found along the US 1 corridor. It is here that we find most, if not all, of the remaining trailer parks in the county; individuals and families living in motels; homeless living in tents on the margins of industrial parks. Geographers tend to focus on differences between places, regions, and landscapes; the contrast between the US 1 corridor and the remainder of the county intrigues me.

My literary interest in the corridor began with a desire to write an essay about Jessup for a newsletter focusing on urban geography. With easy access to I-95, Baltimore, and Washington, Jessup has become the locus of warehousing, industrial, and wholesaling activity in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. There is a large wholesale produce and seafood center, and a large concentration of warehousing and light industry. Because of this activity, Jessup is also a transportation center, with large numbers of trucks carrying goods into and out of the area. Much of the activity that occurs in Jessup once occurred in Baltimore; the activities of the port and the central city are now located in the suburbs. Jessup is an apt example of how the economic base of many central cities has shifted to the suburbs. As I drafted my essay, though, I struggled with capturing the sights, the smells (spices, diesel fumes), and the gritty character of Jessup. Academic-style writing just couldn't capture the feelings I wanted to convey. Poetry worked, and the poem "Jessup" resulted. I published "Jessup" in 2006 in You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography.

Since that time, I've looked for other topics drawn from the corridor. My more recent poems, "The Tire Swing," "Patuxent Story," "Route 1 Bridge," and "Visiting Day," are the result of ideas and observations that I've had in mind or drafted on paper for some time now. "The Tire Swing" focuses on the residents of a small trailer park that was sold by the land owners to developers. The residents, who owned their trailers, but only rented the lots on which they stood, were forced out. They attempted to buy the property and remain on the land, but the lure of profit and the neighboring community's opposition to trailer parks, led to the closing of the trailer park. It is a good example of suburban gentrification, analogous to what we see happening in the inner cities.

"Patuxent Story" can be read as a poem about any unwanted group of people, pushed from one jurisdiction to another. I purposely left it somewhat vague as to who the "they" are in the poem. The people I had in mind, though, are the prostitutes who work the area along US 1 and around the race track in the Laurel area. Three counties come together here-- Anne Arundel, Howard, and Prince George's. The cheap motels are in Howard; the race track in Anne Arundel; the bars in Anne Arundel and Prince George's. This side of life is largely unknown to most of the local residents, but if you read the crime reports in the local paper, you realize that the police in the various jurisdictions push the prostitutes (and their clientele) from one county to another. It seems to be an endless cycle of movement, not unlike an eddy in a river. The Patuxent River flows through this area, forming the boundary between the various counties; it seemed like an apt analogy of life flowing onward, but this cohort of people trapped, unable to flow freely.

"Route 1 Bridge" began developing about the same time as "Patuxent Story," and focuses on the homeless men who live under the bridge that crosses the Patuxent between Howard and Prince George's Counties. These men can be seen from time to time along Route 1, outside the diners and bars in Laurel. Their precarious existence is made more so when the Washington Sewer and Sanitation Commission opens the gates on the dam upriver after heavy rains to release excess water from the reservoir. The level of the Patuxent rises substantially, flooding out the men's sleeping areas under the bridge.

"Visiting Day" describes the scene I would see when bicycling along Brock Bridge Road past the penitentiary in Jessup. Every Saturday morning, women and children would be standing outside the gate, lined up waiting for entry to the facility to visit with husbands, boyfriends, fathers. One morning, as I bicycled past, a young girl sat watching me, and I couldn't help but wonder what she thought-- her father in prison and me free to ride past. The scene has stuck with me for quite some time.

I will continue to look for topics and develop poems describing life in the US 1 corridor. Please feel free to comment.

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