Efforts spruce up Pigtown

Trees: Gary Letteron, named a community fellow by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, has received $48,750 to help make Pigtown green.

November 10, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Gary Letteron grew up spending summers on the wooded shores of a pristine lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. But it wasn't until he moved to the trash-strewn, hard-luck streets of Southwest Baltimore that he learned to love trees.

Now known as the tree man of Southwest Baltimore, Letteron has been a fixture on the scene for years. But he still finds himself asking: "How did I come to the inner city to be a farmer?"

After begging, borrowing and patching grants together to keep planting in the midst of urban decay, Letteron, 47, has won a coveted endorsement of his work.

On Thursday, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a branch of the private foundation created by financier George Soros, named Letteron one of its 2001 "community fellows."

The 10 fellows will receive $48,750 each to complete projects in "disenfranchised" Baltimore neighborhoods during the next 18 months.

Letteron's goal: To put at least 200 new trees on the streets and in the parks of Pigtown.

"The best way to describe Gary is that he's an artist, and he's busy painting the city green," says Marion Bedingfield, the city's tree specialist, who has grown fond of Letteron's guerrilla planting tactics over the past two decades.

While Letteron's work is well-known in local neighborhoods, he is directly responsible for a small percentage of the 300,000 trees on Baltimore streets. Bedingfield estimates the number Letteron has planted over the past 20 years at about 3,000.

But Letteron's fans say his real value is in the excitement he generates - motivating urban dwellers to plant, water and mulch even as the streets around their trees put forth violence, trash and noise.

"He has this sort of renegade fun approach to his work that makes people want to help him," says Jackie Carrera, executive director of the Parks and People Foundation, where Letteron once worked as a forester.

"He has a way of bringing in different people who normally wouldn't be planting a tree," Carrera said.

Take the annual "October Tree Fest" that Letteron and like-minded friends hold to attract volunteers to plant trees in Carroll Park. This year's menu featured sausage, potato salad, sauerkraut - and tofu.

Letteron's work has extended well beyond Southwest Baltimore. Hilary Matzinger, a former board member of the Harwood Community Association, remembers how he brought 40 trees to her East Baltimore neighborhood several years ago.

"What the trees mean to those streets in Harwood is that this is a living place - and not a dead and neglected place," she says.

Letteron can't say how many trees he has planted. Precise and polished he is not. He can't explain exactly how he funds his projects, how many years he's been at his tree planting, how he gets people to water the trees he plunks down next to their Formstone rowhouses and marble steps.

But he can tell the species and the year of almost any street tree he passes, from spindly dying Washington hawthorns to the fledgling Chinese elms his group planted in Carroll Park several weeks ago.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Letteron was more interested as a little boy in art and music than he was in trees, says his mother, Janet Letteron.

But his love of the outdoors was rooted early on in a summer cottage the family owned on the shores of 29-mile-long Lake Sacandaga, surrounded by the Adirondacks. The Letterons, who kept the cottage after they moved to Anneslie in the 1960s, called it "camp."

When his parents retired in 1978, leaving the area to live full-time in upstate New York, Letteron gave them packets of seeds - lettuce, peas, squash and corn - to start a vegetable garden, his mother said. It's persisted for nearly a quarter-century.

But if Letteron had green leanings, he didn't realize it until much later. He spent some of the ensuing years adrift - dropping out of college at the University of Maryland and Towson University, supporting himself with odd jobs on theater sets and selling artwork.

"You couldn't ask me to do anything but sin" during that time, Letteron says now with a smile. The best place to find him was hanging out at a tavern near Hollins Market, his new neighborhood, with his friends.

Strangely enough, that's where his career in forestry was born. A group was at a local bar when one of them commented: "This neighborhood needs more trees."

On a lark, the group called a rental center, ordered a jackhammer, and proceeded to bore some pits in an asphalt lot. For the trees, they headed to a wooded area of the suburbs slated to be bulldozed for apartments, and carted off black cherry and American beech to plant.

For one of their first projects, the group lugged pine trees to a sorry strip of grass on South Stockton Street, planted them and dubbed their project Garp's Adirondack Regional Park - named after Letteron's now-departed black Labrador retriever.

Now Letteron works for the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council, paying for his forestry with the support of several nonprofit organizations.

In the meantime, he has finished a bachelor's degree in geography and environmental planning at Towson University and is working on a master's.

Letteron wears a faded T-shirt that shows a placid scene from the lake of his youth, as he points out the sycamores and sweet gums his band of volunteers has planted over the years in the 1200 block of Washington Blvd.

He is proudest when he points to the more mature trees, still standing healthy despite the frayed neighborhood around them.

Vandalism of the trees, Letteron says, is almost unheard of here.

"Pigtown is so good about this," he gushes. "They love their trees."

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