Red tape litters effort to clean blighted alley College students clash with city officials in East Baltimore

October 10, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Smeared with filth and soaked by rain, four college students set out yesterday to clean an alley clogged with soggy trash, dead rats and hundreds of dirty heroin needles near an East Baltimore elementary school. They came well aware there might be trouble.

But they didn't expect it to come from the city Public Works Department.

In a neighborhood that needs all the help it can get -- where even the heroin addicts pitched in yesterday for the sake of the kids at nearby Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School -- city officials nearly strangled an all-volunteer clean-up campaign with red tape.

"We were ready for almost anything," said Ben Hall, 25, a senior psychology major at Coppin State College. "But we didn't count on the city."

Hall's day began at 9 a.m. in a stinking alley in the 2300 block of East Chase Street, a major thoroughfare in the busiest narcotics market on the city's east side. He came after reading an article in The Sun last week about the perils children face each day getting through the neighborhood to their kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school.

"Ben, what have you gotten us into this time?" asked Tim Smith, 23, a senior English major at Coppin State College, as they stepped down from the cab of a rented U-Haul truck into the spitting rain and immediatelysank ankle-deep in mud. "This is a lot worse than I expected."

"A lot worse!" echoed Tomeka Glenn, 22, a junior at Morgan State University, pointing out a bouquet of bent syringes bristling in the debris. "You don't want to get stuck with any of that."

Inspired by march

The three friends eyed each other, looking for any sign that their counterparts were ready to back out. Smith's brother, David, 24, a senior at Coppin, was already out of action -- slumped over in the cab, feverish with the flu.

But for the members of "Mega Man," a campus group they formed as a force for good will after attending the Million Man March in Washington in 1995, quitting was not an option. Hall squinted down the alleyway. "Let's get to work," he said.

For the next three hours, they shoveled heaps of trash, rat carcasses, wine bottles and needles into 60 large garbage bags and heaved them into the truck, stopping long enough to muscle a rotten mattress, a dresser and a gutted lounge chair down the alley.

Around noon, something curious began to happen.

In a place residents call "Zombieland," where skeletal heroin addicts lacerated with needle scars lodge in the dozens of abandoned houses near Rayner Browne, the junkies began to appear from the shadows. Wordlessly, they started picking up trash and carting it to the bright orange truck.

An old television. A sodden couch cushion. A busted bathroom sink.

"We may be junkies, but we do have our pride," said Dalton Chase, 59. "We're not just animals. And we do care about them kids at the school. If somebody tried to hurt one them in front of us, there'd be trouble. We know better than anybody else that they shouldn't have to live in a neighborhood that looks like this.

"Most of us grew up the same way. It's one reason a lot of us are addicts in the first place."

As the work progressed, neighbors gathered on Montford Avenue at the head of the alley, watching with a mixture of surprise and delight as a small section of blight in their ruined neighborhood disappeared into the students' truck.

"It's great, just great," said Modesto Soto, 80, a retired janitor. "It makes me so sad every day to look out onto that. You think no one cares anymore. But then you see something like this and you know there are still good people in the world."

Minutes later, however, city Public Works officials arrived in a phalanx of cars, followed by a small fleet of dump trucks, front-end loaders and pick-ups.

"Hey, these houses are all owned by private owners," said Warren Branch, a work coordinator for the department, stepping gingerly past the mounds of trash bags to confront Glenn. "Do you young people know you're trespassing?"

"Well, somebody has to take responsibility for it," the young woman replied. "They're all abandoned, and nobody is taking responsibility for them. And we thought it may as well be us."

"Well, that's not your job," Branch said. "That's our job."

"Well, your job is done here," she said. "All we want is for you to tell us where we can dump this stuff."

"Well, I'm not authorized to authorize you to dump it anywhere," Branch shot back. "If you want to unload your truck, we'll load it onto our truck and you can just go home."

"That's ridiculous!" Chase bellowed, prompting his fellow addicts begin heckling the man from Public Works. The citizens of Montford Avenue quickly joined in, heaping on complaints about poor city services, abandoned houses, trash-filled alleys.

"This alley has been this way, it stays this way, for over a year," said Betty Dawson, 65, a retired cashier. "We have called you people for simple stuff like picking up bulk trash -- and we can't get you to do anything!"

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