On Monday afternoon (August 5, 2019), my aunt, who lives on Payson Street, and I had gone shopping. When we left to go shopping, both her property and the alley next to it were clear of dirt, trash, and debris, because my aunt keeps it that way. The home has been owned by our family for 73 years.
We returned an hour later to find the outside of her home and the adjoining alley trashed and littered. I immediately got “into it” with the four-man crew of contractors assigned to clean up an overgrown lot (formerly a neighbor’s house) on the other side of the alley, not only because they did a poor job of cutting down the overgrowth (trash still littered the mown lot), but because they left so much dirt, trash, and debris on the front and the side of my aunt’s house—as well as in the alley.
I encountered two men from the cleanup crew standing at the corner of Mosher and Payson Streets, proudly documenting their shoddy work—one man was holding a handwritten sign reading, “I cleaned [“house number] Mosher Street” while he was being photographed by the other man.
In a “Hell no, I’m not gonna take it anymore” moment, I yelled and cursed at them to come down to my aunt’s house and remove the trash they left behind! Instead, they walked down Payson and ducked into the alley at the other end of the block! My aunt’s next-door neighbor commented that she had already asked them to clean up the mess, to no avail. Meanwhile, another member of the crew apologized and began blowing away some of the trash from my aunt’s house. Then, the two men who’d ducked down the alley reemerged at the scene of the “crime” and our argument continued. I told them how I’d lived in the house they’d trashed as a child and that this block of Payson Street had once been beautiful! The older man (who had taken the photo of his younger partner) tried to tell me I was lying, that he too had lived around there, and that he was born in 1953. To which I replied, “So was I.” I even tried to explain to him—without apologizing for my heated reaction—why I was so upset. By this time, though, the older man was jumping into his truck—and nearly drove off without the poor guy with the blower!
Now, here’s my beef: it is not the responsibility of “the neighborhood” to clean up after empty lots that the City of Baltimore created in its haphazard attempts to deal with the blight that it created by disinvesting from and abandoning the affected neighborhoods, and then declaring them dead! I repeat: It is not the responsibility of “the neighborhood” to clean up after empty lots or abandoned properties. Why? Because we as a citizenry pay taxes to the City to provide those services for us. So, to those of you who volunteer to keep the public spaces in your neighborhood clean, I salute you. But it is not your job or your responsibility to do so.
It is the job of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) to do so, and to do so without making the situation worse. As taxpayers, we are paying DPW to do work for us, and we should expect them to do the job to the best of their ability—just as our employers expect from us.
In fact, the Baltimore Department of Public Works website states as its mission:
“We support the health, environment and economy of our City and the region by providing customers with safe drinking water and keeping neighborhoods and waterways clean” [emphasis added.]
Furthermore, DPW is specifically responsible for “vacant and abandoned property maintenance services” and public right of way cleaning, including sweeping city-owned streets, alleys and lots, as well as mowing high grass and weeds on public lots.
It is the duty of citizens to report illegal dumping, by calling 911 if you see illegal dumping in progress, or 311 if illegal dumping already exists in your neighborhood. And it is the duty of citizens to maintain their own properties by keeping their own lawns mowed and their own sidewalks swept and clean.
The incident I described, above, just happened to occur at a time when Baltimore was once again thrown into the national spotlight in a negative way, as the current occupant of the White House spent the first half of this week denigrating Baltimore City as a rat-infested, dirty place where no human would want to live. And there have been countless newspaper articles, Facebook posts, and conversations bickering over this characterization. It has even been suggested that my point of view about the blight that does exist in parts of Baltimore (and in most major urban centers in the country) is a “kneejerk reaction” or, worse, a naïve worldview.
But as a lifelong resident of Baltimore, I know better. The blight we now have in large sections of this City, as heartbreaking as it is to see, is only part of the story. As I’ve said before—and will continue to say, this City is made up of many neighborhoods: some full of grandeur, some trendy, some struggling, and some fighting against all odds to keep going. And even in the worst-hit areas, I know that there are people working to make things better.
That’s why I strongly believe that shoddy work does not deserve a selfie—or a gold star.
Come on, Baltimore. We are better than this.