Plow Envy What about us? Grab a shovel, and whatever conspiracy theory fits best, and start clearing what the city didn't.

January 13, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Forget the grassy knoll. In the Baltimore area, our conspiracy theories converge on the snowy streets, as our cabin-fevered imaginations develop endless scenarios for who gets plowed and why.

We think it's political, a nefarious system based on who you are, who you know and who you've irked. We think it's linked to class, with the rich neighborhoods in front of the poor ones. We think it depends on if your precinct voted "right" in the last election. We think it's racist, no matter which race we are. And we're sure it really helps to have neighbors with names like Hackerman, Knott, Meyerhoff and Paterakis.

Politicians assure us there is no preferential treatment. Snow-removal plans are based on traffic patterns, with an objective road map hierarchy that starts, in the city, with highways and major thoroughfares, then works it way down to secondary streets.

In the outlying areas, the nomenclature is slightly different -- main roads, connectors and cul-de-sacs -- but there's always an irate caller who will insist it's not the connectors, but the connections, if you get our drift.

"No, we do not have a pecking order," insists George Harrison, a public information officer for Harford County, sounding good-natured but just a tad weary of the question. "The county attorney had to hire someone to dig him out. The county treasurer was riding a snow plow. The county administrator was stuck in his house two days. I was stuck for two days."

Annapolis Alderman Louise Hammond tells a similar tale. Her phone has been ringing off the hook for days with angry taxpayers who want their streets plowed now. Many end their calls by saying: "And I know your street is spick-and-span."

"It couldn't be anything more to the contrary," she laughs, pointing out that Alderman Ellen O. Moyer's street is even worse than hers. It's also not a case of the rich receiving special treatment: The historic district is much snowier than the less rarefied climes of Admiral Heights, with its wide roads and off-street parking.

But one of the great things about conspiracy theories is that one need not be deterred by reason, fact or persuasion. Otherwise, Oliver Stone's "JFK" wouldn't exist. Frankly, there are those of us who have another project in mind for Mr. Stone: "JFX," with Tommy Lee Jones as George Balog.

Such a film might begin with a flashback to the 1940s. Big Tommy D'Alessandro is mayor. A heavy snow blankets Baltimore. But Little Italy's streets are snow-free.

Business-district priority

City legend has it that Little Italy was always plowed, thanks to decades of City Hall connections. A woman answering the phone at Babusci's, a restaurant owned by Frank Babusci, who oversaw the city's snow removal efforts until 1990, says shortly: "Not this year, not with our mayor, no way. Frankie doesn't have that kind of pull anymore."

But when Mr. Babusci comes on the line, he is anxious to dispel such myths about the neighborhood's legendary clout. "We used to hear it was who you knew that helped you get your street clean. That wasn't true. Everyone gets treated equally."

He says Little Italy was a business district and business districts had priority over residential areas.

Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown and 36th Street in Hampden also were done early.

Man, reporting really takes the fun out of a good conspiracy theories. Memo to self: Stop asking so many questions.

When asked to share their favorite conspiracy theories about snow removal with The Sun, some citizens become suddenly shy. They understand plow plots are best when passed along the more circuitous routes of gossip and second-hand apocrypha, those stories beginning: "I know someone who knows someone who knows for a fact "

Not even city Rumor Control has picked up a whiff of these snowy rumblings and ruminations.

Still, we found some people willing to shovel, metaphorically speaking.

'Perk of the job'

"I've lived on this street since '71 and it's never been plowed," says Kurt Jennings of Schenley Road, a two-block stretch in North Baltimore best known as the cross street for Sam's Bagels.

"The next street over is Keswick, and it got plowed before Cold Spring Lane. I think someone who works in city government lives on Keswick. And I can understand that. If I worked in city government, and I knew someone to call, that's the perk of the job."

Mr. Jennings also sees class bias at work. Roland Park, which virtually surrounds his neighborhood, the tiny enclave of Evergreen, can afford to hire private contractors for their secondary streets.

"But since I'm in Evergreen, and it's not affluent, we don't get touched. You'd think with the bagel shop and the dry cleaners, where a lot of the affluent people go, you'd think they'd want to plow, but it's a no go."

Another community where plow-conspiracy theories began to simmer this week was Cheswolde, in Northwest Baltimore.

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