City cleanup a little too long in the making

March 26, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Park Heights Avenue looked pretty good Friday morning, for Park Heights Avenue. Trash on front lawns? Well, yeah. Vacant houses, with the doors boarded up and the porches collapsed and the upstairs windows looking like blind men staring out at the once-handsome boulevard? Uh, yeah. Clumps of out-of-work guys standing around with nowhere to go and a brooding menace in their eyes and the neighborhood junkies beginning to move around looking for the morning's first fix? Sure, but what else is new?

What else? Well, for openers, the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, showed up Thursday afternoon, took off his suit jacket and put on a windbreaker for the TV cameras, and walked through an alley off the big northwest Baltimore drag to declare a shining new day in his unkempt city.

From now on, the mayor said, sanitation crews will be marching through the city's grungiest neighborhoods, doing large-scale cleanups designed to make unhappy residents feel better about living in the communities which, come to think of it, some of these same unhappy folks seemed to have befouled in the first place.

Do we mock the effort? No, not at all, except. . .

Except the vast majority of people who live in these neighborhoods, who do not think the streets and alleys and yards are their personal dumping areas, ought to grab by the throat those slobs who insist on dumping trash, and they should hTC commence to squeeze as hard as they can, or else the city's best efforts will be in vain and. . .

And one other slight problem: The cleanup sweeps are such a simple idea, and such an essential foundation of any troubled community, that we need some clear, rational voice to tell us exactly why it took more than seven years of the current administration for somebody to think of it.

There. We said it, and we're glad. It's nice to have a city with a Harborplace, and it's nice to have a ballpark and an aquarium and visitors who get out of town before they drift too far out of the tourist zones. But if we don't have residential neighborhoods that are clean, then who in the world would want to stay here, and why hasn't this occurred to anybody until now?

"It has," mayoral spokesman Clint Coleman said at week's end. "It hasn't taken seven years. It has been a process in which we have tried to keep up with the problem, doing it sort of the way it's always been done, but it's just an ever-growing problem. We've tried enlisting citizen help. We've tried to do more. Also, it's getting more expensive, you know."

Cynics will argue the obvious: It's an election year, time to make it look as if good things are happening. But that's a cheap shot, and it demeans the good intentions of this mayor, who has worked hard (though often out of sight), and honestly (though that $25 million repair program for low-cost housing needs some explaining now, or it will drag itself across the whole summer political campaign) and with sensitivity to racial edginess that other big-city mayors have exploited.

But, giving the mayor his due, he remains vulnerable on the basics. How could it have taken seven years to acknowledge there are so many filthy neighborhoods? And that controversial $25 million public housing program: Yes, the situation was desperate, but the mayor was already into his second term before anybody seemed to notice it.

Thus we came, last week, to Schmoke standing in an alley off Park Heights Avenue and talking, finally, about a problem obvious to all who have eyes. It's a mess. The city's Department of Public Works marked the area -- from Cold Spring Lane to Northern Parkway -- as one of the city's "dirty dozen" neighborhoods. But a dozen neighborhoods is only a beginning.

"To do (cleanups) strictly the way they've always been done," Clint Coleman said, "is a kind of reaction thing. A street's dirty, you go out and clean it. There's more coordination now. The old way, for example, before we merged the Department of Transportation with public works, you'd have transportation paving a street, and public works arriving the following week to dig up a pipe, and mess up the street all over again.

"They didn't work together. Now they're merged. The mayor's priority is the same with the trash, getting public works, housing, parks and recreation, the police, all working together." Also, Coleman admitted, "You're in office, you get better at what you do. You try different things. All decisions being made today are not related to an election year."

Fair enough. But, the newest cleanup move seems so obvious, (( and so basic, that it has to prompt voices to ask, "Why did this take so long?" And it's not Mary Pat Clarke who's the only voice.

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