Hokey men vanishing, to neighborhood distress

May 23, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

There are only 65 of them left, and residents in just about every neighborhood in the city want one, comforted by the "sweep, sweep, sweep" sound they make and by the clean they leave behind.

But a change in city policy will mean that, in the neighborhoods during this election-year summer, there will be fewer of the so-called hokey men: sanitation workers who typically pull a wheeled trash bin and zero in with a broom and shovel on street trash that mechanical brooms often miss.

The Department of Solid Waste earlier this month began ordering street sweepers who once made their way along residential streets to focus their efforts on commercial centers as part of a pilot program in two of the five city sanitation districts. The program is to be extended citywide July 1.

That has upset several neighborhood leaders, and telephones are ringing in City Hall.

"People in Highlandtown and Canton and Fells Point are unhappy," said Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., D-1st. "I was in Locust Point for three hours today, and almost every other door I banged on, one of their major concerns was a street cleaner in their area."

"It's my No. 1 call," said Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, who, along with other council members, say that trash ranks with crime among the issues about which constituents are most passionate.

Orville A. Swafford, the city's solid waste chief, said the department decided to re-deploy the hokey cart people because, with the increasing mechanization of the department, the sweepers no longer are efficient in keeping the city clean.

Under the restructuring, the sweepers will be used in commercial districts on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, increasing the current once-a-week sweeper service in those areas to three times a week.

On two other days each week, the sweepers would team with existing residential street and alley cleaning crews, giving these crews additional punch, Mr. Swafford said.

A separate 23-member crew that works the city's downtown and Inner Harbor areas will not be affected.

Although the restructuring might mean that neighborhoods do not get cleaned as often, the new plan should allow bigger crews and more thorough cleanings, Mr. Swafford said.

"What a neighborhood can expect to see is 15 or 20 men coming through their neighborhood in crews, rather than a single hokey man," Mr. Swafford said.

But that does not sit well with the leaders of some neighborhood organizations, who liken the sweepers to front-line soldiers in the battle against neighborhood blight.

"I'm disappointed the mayor did this, because it has helped our ** communities," said Ephraim Freedman, president of the Fallstaff Improvement Association, who called Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th, to complain. "I think the residential areas need it more than the commercial areas."

In 1985, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer recommended eliminating the street cleaners to save money, only to change his mind.

But the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, faced with successive lean budget years, has allowed the number of street sweepers to decline through attrition. The city budget included money for 133 sweepers three years ago, 65 this year, and 60 for the budget year beginning July 1.

To make up for the decline, public works officials are increasingly relying on 5-foot-wide mechanical brooms, vacuum trucks and smaller sweepers the size of riding mowers.

That has won the praise of some council members, who say that by hanging on to the hokey carts, the city is spending money on labor that could be used more efficiently.

'I think we have to deal with mechanization," said Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th, who said the cost of paying street sweepers is certain to be raised as an issue when the council examines the proposed $1.8 billion operating budget in early June. "We can just not afford to have a hokey man sweep every street."

Public works officials, nettled by criticism that the city has got dirtier in recent years, said they are convinced that, as communities become familiar with the new system, they will accept it.

"Let us be judged by results," Mr. Swafford said. "I personally think this arrangement has the potential to keep our neighborhoods even cleaner, because you will have more men on a regular schedule."

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