Neighbors share care of Baltimore's parks

Partners: In some areas, citizens ease the upkeep burden on a financially strapped city.

July 23, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

For years, the Baltimore parks department ignored tiny Evesham Park, and neighbors warned their children to stay away from it. Vines climbed over the fences, hiding the basketball courts. Transients dragged in greasy mattresses and slept there, leaving the flower beds glittering with hypodermic needles.

But then Leslie Wietscher issued a rousing challenge this spring to her neighbors near Belvedere Square: Rise up and reclaim your park. More than 90 poured out of their homes in April and June, hacking down the weeds, planting flowers and uncovering brick walkways.

When the neighborhood association held a concert there earlier this month, 200 people spread blankets in a beautiful 2-acre park that some had lived near for decades without ever visiting.

As Mayor Martin O'Malley tries to figure out how to stretch the city's thin budget to better maintain its parks, some argue that the answer is in private citizens taking responsibility for public lands.

"I get frustrated at people who complain about what the city is not doing," said Wietscher, the 49-year-old acting president of the Evesham Park Neighborhood Association. "We can't sit around and wait for other people to take care of our own neighborhood."

Another answer might be teamwork between citizen groups and government, which helps to maintain some of the city's cleanest parks, such as Patterson Park, Cylburn Arboretum and Wyman Park, neighborhood leaders say. Parnerships are often required for the larger parks, where neighbors can pick up litter but city mowers and trucks are also needed.

"There's no question that the best parks are the ones that have a lot of community involvement," said Mary Sloan Roby, president of the Friends of Patterson Park.

"But to say that a citizens group should take over a 155-acre area like Patterson Park - the equivalent of 35 city blocks - is pretty far-fetched.

"Citizens can help, but the city must accept responsibility for caring for public lands."

Demanding more park maintenance from the public can be difficult in poor neighborhoods, such as some near Leakin Park, where many are so burdened with day-to-day problems they don't have much desire to spread mulch.

"When you're living on Section Eight [subsidized housing] you've got other things ahead on your priority list - like just surviving economically as well as physically," said Reggie Wilson Sr., 46, who has played and watched baseball in Leakin Park all of his life.

Jackie Carrera, executive director of a nonprofit organization called the Parks & People Foundation, said the question of citizen involvement becomes all the more important in a chronically underfunded city that has the same vast amount of parkland - about 6,500 acres - that it had in the 1950s, when the city had about 40 percent more taxpayers than it has today.

"The bottom line is that our city doesn't have enough resources, and we have to figure out how to do the best for our parks with what we have," said Carrera. "Parks say something about who we are as a city, and they send messages to people who are thinking about moving here or living here."

Members of the Evergreen neighborhood in North Baltimore took the extreme step of asking the city parks department to leave Stony Run Park alone so they could assume total responsibility for mowing, planting and maintaining the public land.

Michael Beer, a retired Johns Hopkins physics professor, recalled that he and his neighbors in the mid-1980s began planting young saplings and shrubs in the park, a charming, wooded stretch of land with a meadow and trail that follows a creek.

"But every time we planted, the city would mow them down. So we marked the new plants with ribbons, and the city still mowed them down anyway," Beers laughed. "It became ridiculous. So we took over caring for the park ourselves and began a really extensive planting program."

Over the past 15 years, Beer and his neighbors have planted more than 2,000 oaks, azaleas, magnolias, spice bushes and other species native to Maryland. With the help of a $2,500 donation from a local resident, the neighborhood bought its own riding mower and has been vigilant in maintaining the park and keeping it free of litter.

In Patterson Park, 130 neighbors decided to help keep the park clean by donating $30 each to buy 130 additional trash cans, which they placed throughout the park.

The local Friends of Patterson Park try to work hand-in-glove with the city parks department, which empties the trash, mows the grass and pays for important capital improvements, such as the clearing of weeds from the lake and this spring's $500,000 renovation of the landmark Patterson Park Pagoda.

Corporations and nonprofits lend a hand, too, providing money for a summer employment program that pays eight teen-agers to plant flowers and pick up trash.

The city parks department provides all of the mowing and maintenance services for Federal Hill Park, but neighbors pick up litter and dog waste, said Ian Neuman, president of the neighborhood association.

In Evesham Park, Leslie Wietscher said, the city parks department became more attentive to mowing and maintenance this summer when it noticed the community cared about the once grim site.

"The city can only do so much," Wietscher said. "The government needs to partner with the communities and businesses to get the job done."

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