When I called Charlene Pinkney back to double check some facts for A Tree Grows on Bruce Street in the latest issue of Chesapeake Quarterly — Renewing an Urban Watershed, I asked about her garden. It was early spring when I’d first visited — trees had just started to blossom. With all of May’s rain behind us, everything must have really taken off by now.
It has. And her lawn mower is still broken, which has made caring for the lush grass a challenging proposition. Her grass had gotten so tall recently that fearing a citation from the city, she got out there with a pair of hedge clippers and started whacking it by hand. But her real struggle has been with the rats, she told me. They’ve become bold, brazen. She says they’ve built a network of tunnels through her yard. She’s considering trying to fill the tunnel openings with shards of glass, of which there’s no scarcity on littered Bruce Street.
Meanwhile, she’s going door-to-door on her troubled block to get signatures to petition the city to come out and place traps. She needs to engage the whole block in the eradication effort. What Pinkney is facing in her garden is the stuff bad dreams are made of.
West Baltimore has serious problems. Drugs, crime, homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. I deliberately waited until I finished writing this story to get Season 1 of The Wire, the gritty HBO police drama set on these streets, from Netflix. I’d learned that most of the series had been filmed on street corners and alleys I would now recognize. But I didn’t want the dramatized streets to cloud my impressions of the efforts in the 72-block radius defined as Watershed 263.
What struck me is that this pilot project in Watershed 263 is the real deal. The pipes beneath these city streets carry some of dirtiest water in the Chesapeake watershed and life aboveground faces some of the toughest odds. Improving water quality through community greening practices seems a nearly Sisyphean charge. Against this backdrop of big problems in Baltimore, each hard-won vacant lot turned rain garden requires tremendous effort, community input, and funding. And, according to plan, it will take 107 such projects to see a measurable impact on stormwater from only 25 percent of the watershed.
Watershed 263 evokes a parallel for me to the BALTIMORE BELIEVE campaign. The campaign was an attempt by then mayor Martin O’Malley to “light a fuse of popular will” to change the mindset of the city with regard to the drugs. The idea is that if everyone does at least one thing to fight drugs, acting alone or together, then the community can prevail.
I lived in Baltimore in 2002 when the BELIEVE campaign was beginning to gain traction. I remember puzzling at the stark black signs with the white letters that read simply, “BELIEVE.” No context. No explanation. I didn’t know what I was supposed to believe in. At first I was vaguely annoyed. I didn’t get it.
That feeling didn’t last long. Those signs got under my skin. I’m not sure that I ever embraced the message specific to the drug problem in Baltimore. But I would drive down the streets and register a prickle of hope, like what you’d experience walking out of a feel-good movie.
The same goes for Watershed 263. The odds still seem stacked against success. Juxtaposed with personal safety, unemployment, and drugs, the effect of urban stormwater on the Chesapeake Bay ranks low on the list of concerns of most watershed residents. But for some, growing green space in neighborhoods and improving the quality of outdoor life is rising to the top. The people I met value their gardens and embrace the idea that turning empty lots into safe green havens can benefit their health and improve the quality of their daily lives.
BELIEVE in green. The people of Watershed 263 do. And just maybe, if everyone does at least one thing to green his/her local community, healthier waters downstream will prevail.