For more than a year, he's worked with city officials, groups such as the Parks & People Foundation and with neighborhood leaders drawing up a plan for "cleaning and greening" a 2-square-mile swath of the city that drains into the harbor at Canton through one of 26 storm drain outfalls around the edge. The solar-powered trash interceptor once anchored at the mouth of the Jones Falls has been moved there, where until recently it has been capturing up to five tons of debris before it could wash into the harbor.
The outfall was once the mouth of Harris Creek, a tidal inlet that stretched all the way to Patterson Park. Today, the creek is buried beneath the streets, as are most of the streams in the city. But its old bed has become the spine of a 53-mile network of storm sewer pipes connecting 17 neighborhoods that stretches inland to Clifton Park. With 70 percent of the land paved over, officials say cleaner water will only come by replacing some of that pavement with green spaces — and by changing people's behavior.
For many Baltimoreans who don't live near the water, though, the harbor is a tourist attraction, not something they relate to. In some of the neighborhoods that drain into the harbor in Canton, incomes average $12,000 a year. Planners say there are 5,000 vacant homes and roughly as many empty lots in the whole storm-drain watershed, which is home to 44,000 people.
"The average citizen in our city could care less about the Inner Harbor," says Russell E. Stewart, 81, who lives near the watershed's northern boundary. "The prices are so high we can't afford to go there." Stewart warned that "if you do not win the community over, you can forget it. You'll be wasting your time and money."
Bahr acknowledges that he and other activists ran into skeptics, even suspicion, when they first ventured into poor inland neighborhoods. However, the residents told them they want better neighborhoods, but said they were often ignored by the city when they called to report trash dumped illegally in their alleys and vacant lots.
Last summer, in a bid to overcome those gaps, Bahr helped organize a 10-week cleanup campaign in a 4,000-home area of the Harris Creek watershed. Bahr and other volunteers scouted streets and alleys for trash and reported it to the city, which sent out crews to clean it. They gave out 500 trash cans in neighborhoods where many residents persist in putting trash out in bags — which get torn apart by dogs, cats and rats.
In all, they cleaned up more than 100 sites littered with debris. The biggest hauls came from the backyards of vacant homes, Bahr says, which had become mini-landfills over time, and which the city had largely ignored because they were on private property.
Since then, Bahr says, the outpouring of trash washing out of the storm outfall in Canton appears to have fallen by as much as half. To build on that, Bahr says, he's trying to persuade the city to provide 5,000 more trash cans to give to residents. With that gesture, which Bahr estimates would cost the city $70,000, he says neighborhood leaders have pledged that they'll police their blocks and call out residents who persist in putting bags of trash out for pickup.
City officials say they've no money and besides, they've given away inexpensive trash cans before, only to see them disappear. But Bahr contends the effort is worth trying again, that the potential gain is worth the relatively small cost.
If neighborhoods as different as Canton and Patterson Park and Darley Park can work together to clean up trash, Bahr hopes that will lead to other improvements mapped out in the Harris Creek plan, such as creating more parks and community gardens on vacant lots. And maybe it can serve as a model for the rest of the city.
There are those who doubt that Baltimoreans can come together like that, he acknowledges. The city has a lot of other pressing problems pulling people in different directions. But he says he believes that cleaning up and greening neighborhoods not only will restore the harbor, it can help make the city safer and a better place to live and work.
"It's a challenge," he says. "But to me, it's what bringing Baltimore back is all about."
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.
Baltimore city sewage overflows
2005: 122 overflows, 4,754,828 gallons
2006: 75 overflows, 69,505,394 gallons
2007: 74 overflows, 549,564 gallons
2008: 133 overflows, 1,620,464 gallons
2009: 226 overflows, 2,167,752 gallons
2010: 181 overflows, 1,565,074 gallons
SOURCE: Maryland Department of the Environment
Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts