O'Malley helps do the dirty work

Mayor leads residents in clearing an estimated 2,000 tons of garbage

March 26, 2000|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, flexing his muscle as a politician and temporary garbage man, joined thousands of other city residents yesterday in a campaign against trash and graffiti that tested the new mayor's powers to inspire Baltimoreans to action against one of the great curses of urban life.

The Super Spring Sweep Thing, the tongue-twisting name of the city's two-day anti-trash effort, was a high-profile demonstration of O'Malley's youthful vigor and street smarts. It paid off with an estimated 2,000 fewer tons of trash on city streets and plenty of media images of O'Malley getting his hands dirty in the filthy back lots of Baltimore. He was all broom and no guitar.

"It feels great to actually get something done," O'Malley said. "People feel empowered. There's this feeling that we're all taking charge of the city again."

On a warm day perfect for a spring cleaning, O'Malley lifted wet mattresses and the splintered wreckage of an old porch out of an alley near North Howard Street. He marched with a small army of volunteers through a rat-infested lot near Greenmount Avenue. He helped some school children paint over graffiti-marred traffic-control boxes in Charles Village. Everywhere he went, O'Malley's drawing power was obvious; he was frequently surrounded by men, women and children with loads of energy -- and shovels, brooms and paint brushes in their hands.

Baltimore County, Annapolis and the State Highway Administration sent help.

Even Jim Mathias, the mayor of Ocean City, brought a squadron of blue, flag-adorned dump trucks. Mathias wore an orange jumpsuit and a hard hat. He was all handshakes and back-slaps on St. Paul Street, as he posed for photographs with O'Malley. He offered to treat children from Barclay Elementary School to a trip to Ocean City as a reward for their participation.

Mathias even helped Baltimore police catch a graffiti suspect who spray-painted the words, "Little Apple, 24th Street Thug" on a building in Waverly yesterday afternoon. Mathias tailed the suspect in his car and phoned police.

"I was born and raised in Baltimore, in Hampden," Mathias said. "I know what happens here. You can't have 300 or more homicides a year, trash piling up everywhere, and expect Baltimore to go anywhere."

Mathias said he sees the city's economic health as vital to the state's and his resort's.

"Baltimore is an asset to Maryland, and it's a brother-sister city to Ocean City," he said. "Last year at this time, everyone was talking about Kweisi Mfume [running for mayor], and I was waiting to hear a message and it wasn't coming."

A certain former mayor of Baltimore -- and governor of Maryland -- got Mathias interested in O'Malley's candidacy last summer. William Donald Schaefer, who often staged anti-trash events like yesterday's, pulled Mathias into the O'Malley loop.

And over the winter, when he heard O'Malley was planning this think-positive, Schaefer-style event, Mathias offered dump trucks and front-end loaders. He delivered -- with Ocean City dump crews hauling away load after load of debris from trash-strewn lots in the Barclay neighborhood and sections of West Baltimore.

O'Malley, in blue jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, literally got his hands on a problem that has plagued Baltimore and its mayors for years -- the trash that accumulates along city streets and vacant lots, especially in neighborhoods that have been afflicted with abandoned rowhouses and crime. He saw mounds of scrapped lumber, tires, plastic bottles, pieces of appliances, paper wrappers, beer bottles, old sneakers and pieces of toys.

"We just found Jimmy Hoffa," joked Joe Brunetti, a Charles Village resident who helped remove a 2-year-old pile of trash in an alley behind North Howard Street.

O'Malley's staff crowed about weather conditions being superb. They estimated that 3,000 volunteers took part in the operation. There were also 1,200 city workers deployed for the cleanup.

"One thing I noticed, city workers didn't just stand around and watch volunteers at work," said William Miller, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. "They worked hard, and a lot of them brought their kids with them to help out. It's made a real difference."

George Winfield, appointed by O'Malley as public works director in January, estimated that city crews collected 700 tons of trash Friday, the first day of the campaign. Winfield predicted that crews hauled another 1,300 tons of trash to the city's Quarantine Road landfill yesterday.

Both O'Malley and Winfield encountered Baltimoreans willing to sweep and shovel, and even more primed to complain about long-standing trash problems that date to the Schmoke era. They also found plenty of bulk trash -- furniture and other possessions some people had brought to the street. Some residents apparently perceived Super Spring Sweep Thing as an opportunity to purge their attics and garages.

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