Broken poles, dead trees -- and lots of frustration


Residents vent on a variety of problems, and we try to provide them with solutions

December 26, 2006

The Watchdog column debuted in October to showcase everyday problems that people have trouble getting fixed. It has, in a short time, gotten broken light poles repaired, a dead tree cut down, an inoperable fire hydrant replaced and, when trash accumulated at a bus stop on Northern Parkway, led to the installation of not one new garbage can but three.

Readers have responded with more than 200 e-mails, telephone calls and letters, some with photographs. People are angry about crime, leaking water pipes, messy yards, fast drivers, slow drivers, cracked sidewalks and streetlights with burned-out bulbs. An overwhelming number of complaints come from the city and Baltimore County.

Lengthy and almost impossibly detailed missives commonly end in exasperation, signified by capital letters and a string of exclamation points. Writers have called government agencies for weeks, months and even years without result, and feeling that they are helpless and drowning in a bureaucratic quagmire, they turn to Watchdog for help.

"The city said they would do something," one resident wrote about a neighboring yard overrun with rats. "Well, when will it happen?"

The newspaper gets quick action.

For two years, the principal of Catholic High School of Baltimore, Keith Harmeyer, complained about fading paint marking a crosswalk on Edison Highway. When Watchdog called the city's Department of Transportation, spokesman David Brown quickly said, "We can hand paint the crosswalk." And they did - crews were busy the day after the item appeared.

And when a commuter, Alan Hirai, noted that a sign on the Baltimore Beltway gave the wrong distance to an exit, state highway crews went out and measured shortly after an inquiry from this column.

Watchdog cannot get to every complaint, and it tries not to duplicate. The column selects issues with broad appeal, in the hope that officials will use the highlighted topic to examine a broader array of potential problems. If a crosswalk at one school needs repainting, others probably do as well, and maybe someone, somewhere will take the time to investigate and fix the situation.

Crime, while certainly a top complaint, is not easy to address in Watchdog. One e-mail said: "All night and all day along the Wilkens Avenue and Ramsay Street corridor. Prostitution and Drug Dealing. These people have licenses. Can you fix that?"

Well, no, though it would certainly would be novel if drug dealers had licenses to sell their wares. Many tips or ideas are passed on to reporters. But the complaint about drug dealing points to the frustration felt by residents who, if the Watchdog is any barometer, seem to put up with a lot of discomfort in pursuit of more comfortable lives.

Some people demand speed bumps to slow cars on their street. Others think the bumps are too big and are damaging their vehicles. "What about potholes?" another reader wrote, complaining about driving on East Oliver Street in the city. "My knee hurt badly, and now I have a scar."

Even people employed by the government have trouble getting things fixed. Maurice Butler works for the city's sanitation department and said he broke his ankle on a bent storm drain. He wrote a letter and sent in a color photo of the offending grate at Augusta and Massachusetts avenues in Southwest Baltimore. "I'm afraid someone else may fall in," he said.

Alvin Hackerman has e-mailed Watchdog more than 23 times - earning him the honor of the most prolific Watchdog e-mailer - to complain about public buses. He writes long, detailed letters in a language seemingly known only to the Maryland Transportation Administration.

A downtown resident wrote that his wife jumped into the Inner Harbor to retrieve her dog and then could not climb out because there were no ladders. One woman wanted help with her gastric bypass surgery - well beyond the scope of this column. Another complained about strip clubs in her community. Still another sent in a snapshot of a fire hydrant buried in a tangle of weeds, presumably inaccessible should there be a fire.

A "Mrs. D. E. Williams" sent in a heartfelt letter about overgrown vegetation on a property in Southwest Baltimore. She said she had been complaining for two years. "I realize `Watch Dog' can't cure all ills - but I wish Baltimoreians would start taking pride in their neighborhoods again," the letter says. "That's all it take. I want to see that yard clean again. Help me!"

Don Cross of Owings Mills summed up people's frustrations well: "There are so many things that need to be addressed about many different problems, but people don't want to take the time to find out the proper people to contact."

That's what we're here for.

Sample of Watchdog calls

Problems with roads: 51

Messy yards, abandoned houses: 47

Public transportation problems: 26

Streetlights out: 18

Water issues: 10

Crime: 7

Broken fire hydrants: 4

More than 200 e-mails, calls and letters have been sent in to Watchdog between October and Dec. 15. Some contain complaints that are beyond this column's scope, such as disputes between neighbors.

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