Environmental conference stresses need for activists Atlanta mayor urges Baltimore City leaders to confront problems

June 09, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The 500 block of Orchard Street felt a world away from the Chesapeake Bay yesterday. People sat on their steps in the baking sun, looking up and down the line of brick rowhouses at children who, lacking a green expanse, made do with the sidewalk as a playground.

But there, on the western edge of downtown Baltimore, inside the restored old Orchard Street church that is now the headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League, inner-city activists were teaming up with Maryland's largest environmental group, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to talk about how desperately people who love the city and the bay really need each other.

At a conference called "Saving the City, Saving the Bay," speaker after speaker made the point: The more people flee Baltimore for lower crime and greater acreage in the suburbs, the more pollution they create close to sensitive shores; the more their automobiles spew fumes into the air; and the more they pave over ground that would otherwise retain damaging runoff.

Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, the conference's keynote speaker, said community leaders have to "sell" environmental activism to African-American constituents as Madison Avenue sells jeans.

He noted that even in Atlanta, seen nationally as an up-and-coming southern city that will be the site of the Olympic games next month, the population has been dwindling. The Chattahoochee River, which runs through Atlanta, recently was listed among the 10 most endangered rivers in the country, he said.

"Most of the environmental problems we see are within the urban core cities," Campbell said. "We as African-Americans have been confronting such enormous personal challenges that we have not been able to focus on environmental issues. Once the land is stripped bare," he said, "the rich move on to other places."

The conference was born of a partnership between the Urban League and the foundation. The groups began meeting about six years ago in the league's offices at Mondawmin Mall, eyeing each other with trepidation.

They announced their alliance to the media a year ago, along with a five-year plan to cooperate in increasing job opportunities and scholarships in environmental fields for city residents and to study the city's environmental problems.

Baltimore lost a net 45,000 residents between 1990 and 1995, and last year its population dipped below 700,000 for the first time since World War I. Many of those who left moved to Harford and Baltimore counties, which are suffering growing pains -- disappearing farmland, more traffic, more demands on schools and sewer systems.

And city residents suffer myriad health problems linked to the environment -- lead paint poisoning, asthma and a high rate of cancer deaths. The nation's first Superfund cleanup site was an old metal processing plant in South Baltimore.

William C. Baker, president of the Bay Foundation, said some fruits of the partnership with the Urban League are expected in the next month. A study done by local scientists at the groups' request will show the contamination of fish and shellfish caught in the Middle Branch area of Baltimore's harbor, where many urban fishermen catch food for their families. The groups also are preparing to issue a directory of employers for people seeking jobs in environmental fields, he said.

At yesterday's conference, planners, real estate developers and academics gave suggestions for making the city more environmentally sound and attractive.

Elinor R. Bacon, a private developer, suggested creating more "fun" public gathering spots, such as the cafes and coffee shops that enliven neighborhoods in cities like Seattle. "There's too much [of] everybody staying inside their houses," she said.

Others felt the city needed more side yards and community gardens, though city Planning Director Charles C. Graves III asked who would maintain them. The answer -- the residents themselves -- proved to be the theme of the day. "It's going to require the neighborhoods to come together," Graves said.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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