Appreciating Maryland’s heritage
How has nature nurtured you during the pandemic?
That’s the question Patapsco Heritage Greenway Inc. — the conservation group that oversees the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area — is asking Marylanders to respond to this month in the form of poems, essays, drawings or even songs.
Based in Ellicott City, the nonprofit Patapsco Heritage Greenway (PHG) works to preserve and protect the history, environment and culture of the 950-square-mile watershed of the Patapsco River — from its source in Marriottsville to Baltimore’s inner harbor. It’s Maryland’s “most dramatic river valley,” according to the group’s website.
This year, the group had to put its annual March event known as Patapsco Days entirely online. Hence, the outreach for submissions.
When Aaron Shapiro, 47, took over as PHG’s executive director last fall, he knew he needed to be creative to help residents feel engaged with the group’s mission.
Steve Wachs, PHG’s president, is pleased that Shapiro has developed programs “to appeal to a broad audience,” from arts and culture to collecting oral histories. “Aaron has great ideas for blending and merging these initiatives to offer an enriched experience to residents and visitors alike,” Wachs said.
“Some folks have lived in the area for a lifetime,” Shapiro said in an interview with the Beacon. “They’re all connected to the Heritage Area, even if they don’t know it.”
The Patapsco Valley Heritage Area — one of 13 such areas in Maryland — contributes about $50.9 million to the state economy and more than 700 jobs, according to a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority study in January.
In 2020, the borders of the heritage area were broadened to include the communities of Granite and Marriottsville in Howard County and Oella and Catonsville in Baltimore County.
What’s public history?
Shapiro, a Chicago native who “grew up four blocks from Wrigley Field before it was [gentrified] Wrigleyville,” was born into a family of educators. His mother taught in the Chicago public schools and a local private school. His father, a CPA, chaired the business department at a local community college.
“They inspired me to work in higher education at the college level, pursuing history,” Shapiro said. “I grew up in an urban environment, a diverse environment.”
Prior to PHG, Shapiro was associate professor and director of public history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. He also directed the public history program at Auburn University.
Public history, according to the National Council on Public History, “describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.”
To Shapiro, public historians can also address environmental history — issues such as sprawl and discriminatory federal housing policy.
“We’re working to interpret and restore a broad swath of where people have lived for centuries,” he said. Delving into our surroundings, Shapiro said, is fundamental for interpreting our past.
“How can you look at a landscape and understand history?” he asked. “You really have to think deeply about places in a historical way.”
Earlier in his career, while in Washington, D.C., Shapiro served as the national historian for the U.S. Forest Service. In that role, he focused on several public history efforts, including heritage tourism, historical films, websites, oral histories and interpretive planning.
For the past 15 years, Shapiro has taught courses in American and environmental history, covering issues such as sprawl and federal housing policies regarding discrimination.
At Auburn, students in Shapiro’s Introduction to Public History course coordinated a dozen interviews with employees of the Southern Region of the Forest Service. His students took field notes and worked on group projects, creating blogs, podcasts and short films.
His course also covered the 1911 Weeks Act, a federal law that allowed the government to buy private land to protect East Coast waterways, along with fire-protection initiatives.
A noted scholar, Shapiro has authored or co-authored a long list of journal articles and book chapters. His 2013 book, The Lure of the North Woods: Cultivating Tourism in the Upper Midwest, traces the transformation of the Great Lakes region, reimagining the forests and waterways of three states as a mecca for tourists and tourism-related industries.
Now Shapiro will turn his focus to Maryland.
Shapiro acknowledged he had never visited central Maryland’s 39-mile-long Patapsco River before taking this new job. In fact, his first glimpse of the river valley was through works of art.
At an open-air artists’ reception last October, he recalled, “I made the comment that it was inspiring to see the way artists captured river life. I got to see the Patapsco River Valley through that lens for the first time.”
Upon his arrival in Maryland, as the pandemic worsened, Shapiro didn’t waste any time reaching out to community members.
For example, Shapiro collaborated with Amanda Hof, executive director of Howard County Tourism, to raise awareness about the network of walking trails in the watershed, along with shopping and dining options. “It’s great for retirees — just for the natural beauty, if nothing else,” Hof said.
There are also many opportunities for older adults to get involved in projects like cleanup, research and recreation in the heritage area.
Patapsco Days 2021
This month, as the pandemic lingers, many of Patapsco Days’ traditional events have been canceled. However, its virtual lineup includes Patapsco Shorts — video presentations about brewing and distilling, quarries, local vernal pools and more. Patapsco Shorts will remain on the group’s website throughout the year.
Additional events this year include a webinar on birding, a discussion about Patapsco River monitoring, and an oral history workshop.
“COVID hasn’t stopped us,” Shapiro said.
Despite the pandemic, the nonprofit’s work is moving forward. Since January, for instance, Shapiro’s staff has been collecting stories from libraries, historical societies and people of all ages throughout the heritage area.
“There are untold stories to be explored,” Shapiro said. “The goal I have is to diversify those stories.”
To find out more about Patapsco Days or the Patapsco Heritage Society, visit patapsco.org.