Thousands tackle trash in spring cleanup effort

Citizens' participation key to 2-day campaign

March 25, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

If a crossword puzzle asked for a six-letter word describing Baltimore, residents say, "trashy" would quickly come to mind.

It's an image Mayor Martin O'Malley is trying to erase.

And it's motivation for cleanup efforts in Baltimore and many cities nationwide. In New York and Boston, officials have implemented a variety of programs aimed at reducing trash and instilling pride. Their approach seems to be working.

Experts and officials say that cleaning a city is a constant battle that can be won only if citizens get behind the leadership and stop littering their neighborhoods.

Many Baltimore residents say they'll do their part, but they remain skeptical about the aftermath of the mayor's "Super Spring Sweep Thing," for which thousands are expected to turn out today to wrap up the two-day campaign, which O'Malley hopes will lead to a cleaner Baltimore.

"To be honest with you, Baltimore gets trashier each year. It's really the people that have to get out here and get the trash up. The people are the ones who put the trash down," said Glenn Ross, 50, who helped with similar cleanup campaigns under mayors Kurt L. Schmoke and William Donald Schaefer.

Ross, a volunteer community advocate who lives in East Baltimore's McElderry Park neighborhood, said he hopes the current effort has lasting effects in a city where rats are a problem, often chewing through plastic garbage bags and exacerbating the problem.

"I think there's more trash now," Ross said. "When my family members and friends come to town, they say they think Baltimore is clean, and I say, `What do you mean?' "

City Council President Sheila Dixon and others agree that Baltimore needs a good cleaning.

"This city is dirty," Dixon said. "It seems like people take trash lightly."

Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne, who grew up in Montgomery County and Washington, said she thinks Baltimore is as trashy as other big cities.

"I have lived in the city of Baltimore for a long time, and the trash problem has accelerated in the past few years," Payne said. "I think it has gotten more visible, and it's something that captures your attention.

"I used to go to other cities and notice trash and think how much cleaner Baltimore was, but now, in the last few years, we have caught up. Some of the other cities are getting a handle on it, and we, unfortunately, have a visible trash problem."

Payne included Philadelphia among the cities that she once thought weren't as clean as Baltimore.

Joe Kolodziejski, head of the city's solid waste bureau, said Baltimore officials are in contact with leaders in several major cities, including Philadelphia, to examine their cleanup measures.

He, Payne, Dixon and others say citizens are the key to getting and keeping Baltimore clean.

"We cannot do this alone," Kolodziejski said yesterday. "We need their help. It is their responsibility to assist us. People need to understand what their responsibility is for properly disposing debris. If that doesn't work, enforcement must take place."

David Scott, deputy mayor for operations, said it's easy to get accustomed to trash when it's so prevalent.

"We in Baltimore don't notice it the way we should," Scott said. "I think that's part of the educational piece that we need to make the community aware of. Trash is no longer acceptable in Baltimore."

New York City's efforts include a Work Experience Program, in which welfare recipients sweep the streets, and an Adopt-A-Basket Program, in which merchants help empty the city's 25,000 street-corner litter baskets, said Steven Lawitts, deputy commissioner for administration.

Lawitts said New York, a city of more than 7 million has undertaken big cleanup campaigns like O'Malley's. "We work with the communities to identify areas that are of concern and we will organize designated cleanup days with them," he said. "We'll have our people out supervising, and we'll provide the community volunteers with trash bags, rakes, brooms, etc."

He said officials also work with citizens to remove graffiti from buildings.

Last year, 87 percent of New York streets were rated exceptionally clean, up from about 75 percent five years ago, Lawitts said. In Boston, with a population of 574,000, officials began attacking the trash problem two years ago, erecting white picket fences around city-owned vacant lots in an attempt to keep people from littering them.

"It was a visible effort to try to keep the lots clean," said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-supported watchdog group. "In some cases, you'll have people who drop off trash at the fence, but I think it has generally been effective in making people more aware of an effort to try to keep the area clean."

As part of Boston's efforts, youths working summer jobs help clean vacant lots, and a "Graffiti Patrol" uses a power wash to remove unsightly writings and drawings from buildings.

Like New York and other cities, Boston has neighborhood cleanups, Tyler said.

Baltimore is big on neighborhood cleanups. Like O'Malley, Schaefer and Schmoke targeted the problem with fanfare. Efforts like the Super Spring Sweep Thing won't occur every weekend, but officials are willing to join with residents to help keep Baltimore clean, said Kurt Kocher, city public works spokesman.

By 5 p.m. yesterday, 657 tons of trash and 668 tires had been collected, Kocher said.

Richard Haslup was among the residents cleaning up yesterday. The 11-year-old joined other children collecting trash from woods outside their school in Morrell Park.

"Drug needles and condoms," Richard said, pointing to the kinds of items O'Malley hopes are soon a thing of the past in Baltimore's woods and streets.

Sun staff writers Jamie Stiehm, Gerard Shields, Allison Klein, Ivan Penn, and news researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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