You won't find Harris Creek on modern maps of Baltimore. For more than a century, it's been filled in and paved over and channeled into underground pipes.
But before the industrialization of the Canton waterfront, it was a large body of water - wide enough to be navigable as far north as what is now Patterson Park and deep enough to play host to the boatyard that built the frigate Constellation.
The watershed Harris Creek drains is still there in more than 50 miles of underground pipes - along with a small visible vestige of the original creek where a large storm drain spews a mixture of water, runoff and trash into Baltimore Harbor across from the Safeway on Boston Street. It was there that a group of about 20 gathered Saturday for a bus tour of that watershed - a trip that would take them from the upscale Canton waterfront, to some of Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods, to the creek's source in Clifton Park.
The nearly three-hour tour was sponsored by the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association and the Parks and People Foundation to bring together residents of the 17 city neighborhoods that make up the watershed.
"The ultimate goal is to clean up neighborhoods, bring back Baltimore with stronger neighborhoods and clean up the harbor," said Ray Bahr, coordinator of the association's Harris Creek project.
Bahr said the intent was to bring people together to find ways of improving the quality of water in the harbor by enhancing the quality of life in those neighborhoods. The retired St. Agnes Hospital cardiologist said the group hopes to come up with a series of effective practices to reduce the amount of trash that gets past the interceptor at the mouth of the creek and into the harbor itself. The goal, he said, is to find solutions that would also work in the 25 other watersheds that flow into Baltimore harbor and the Middle Branch.
To do that, he said, environmental advocates have to reach out to the diverse communities that make up the Harris Creek - from affluent and largely white Canton to heavily African-American communities near Clifton Park where the median family income hovers around $10,000.
The tour, which brought together an array of community activists, was part of that effort. The first stop was the creek's outfall, where Daniel Chase of Clearwater Mills described the waterwheel-like device that intercepts an estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of the trash that flows out of the 20-foot storm drain where it meets the harbor. He said it's not unusual to fill a Dumpster with trash strained by the interceptor in two hours.
Encouraging the development of productive uses for green space - both to improve communities as well as to limit runoff into storm drains - was the theme of several of the tour's stops.
For some, the highlight was a visit to the Duncan Street Miracle Garden, billed as the oldest continually operating community garden project in Baltimore. The sprawling series of garden plots - planted with a bounty of crops ranging from Swiss chard to peppers to eggplant to fruit trees - is a surprise explosion of green on a site once occupied by vacant houses in one of the most blighted sections of East Baltimore.
"It's wonderful," said Del. Peter Hammen, who represents part of the watershed. The veteran Democratic lawmaker said he was very familiar with the concept of urban gardens but had never seen one on such a scale.
Tour participants also saw plenty of the uglier side of Baltimore as they went from stop to stop.
Just across from the Amazing Grace Evangelical Church, site of an urban garden and recreational labyrinth on Port Street, Mary Washington, associate director of the Parks and People Foundation, spotted a clump of discarded soda bottles and other trash flowing toward an open storm water drain.
"This is part of the human challenge," she said.