Piles of dirty mattresses, weather-worn wood furniture, cardboard boxes and other debris lined the dirt path snaking through Herring Run Park’s southern extension. Volunteers lifted rotting litter onto construction vehicles bearing the Baltimore city logo, which took them to massive city-owned dumpsters.
Further into the park, more people cleared beer cans from the shores of a swimming hole where residents of the surrounding Armistead Gardens neighborhood go to party and swim, despite the pollution. A deteriorated car frame, possibly stolen and dumped like others nearby, lay in the same water. One volunteer pushed a wheelbarrow filled with fireworks.
This was the scene on Saturday morning as at least 100 people gathered to clean this locally beloved but neglected green space of illegally dumped materials. The Friends of Herring Run Parks, a civic organization tasked with park maintenance, and Back River Restoration Committee, which works to preserve its namesake river, organized the action and termed it the Big Time Cleanup.
They received support from the city’s departments of Public Works and Recreation & Parks, as well as the Armistead Homes Corporation, which operates the cooperative housing units adjacent to the park.
Longtime Armistead Gardens resident Kayleigh Zerance said that she reached out to the Friends of Herring Run Parks for help cleaning the park after years of illegal dumping rendered it hazardous to the community.
“We’ve went from seeing couches, trampolines, mattresses to just people dumping construction debris,” she said. “And it’s recently gotten worse.”
Friends of Herring Run Parks coordinator Patty Dowd knew about these issues when Zerance contacted her about five months ago. Dowd conducts hikes through the park every Black Friday that take people through the lower portion, which she said is “very different from the upper portion," where she lives.
“Truthfully, people are smitten with the environment, horrified at the condition,” she said.
Dowd connected with several entities to assist in the cleanup. For instance, the Public Works and Recreation & Parks departments collectively offered dumpsters and construction vehicles (and staffers to operate them).
City public works spokeswoman Whitney Clemmons Brown said that park friends groups like Dowd’s offer important support for the department, whose maintenance crews often cannot consistently keep every park clean.
“Our maintenance teams run pretty much understaffed, unfortunately,” she said. “And on top of the parks, they’re responsible for every ball field, every pavilion, and then there’s thousands of acres of parkland throughout the city. ... So, that’s [why] we have the friend groups, who we rely on to be those park stewards."
The volunteers included students from the private all-girls Bryn Mawr School, local Toyota employees (whose employer underwrites NEEF), Armitage Gardens residents and suburbanites. All noted the importance of a clean park for the neighborhood and region.
Herring Run flows all the way from Towson to the industrial areas just south of the park. It then empties into the Back River, which takes the accumulated waste into the Chesapeake Bay. While local and national politicians weigh plans for cleaning the bay, BRRC president Sam Weaver recognizes that the problems start way earlier.
“It’s a big deal when we go upstream like this, because all this stuff right in here winds up in the Chesapeake Bay area,” he said from the front seat of a John Deere Gator. “Whatever you take out of here is stopping it from going there.”
Toyota employees Erica Jeter and Sara Thompson mentioned the importance of showing their children, who also volunteered, how the effects of daily choices can hurt the environment.
“I always tell my kids: be the change you want to see in the world,” Jeter said. “So I can’t say, ‘we can’t pollute,’ and I’m not doing anything about it."
Green Towson Alliance member Lauren Stranahan, who lives near Herring Run’s headwaters, observed that better environmental education goes a long way towards stopping future pollution throughout the watershed.
“I do a lot of cleanups in Towson, where there’s a lot of college students, and when I get [them] involved and they start picking up beer cans on the side of the road, they say, ‘Oh, that was from that party to I went that last weekend,’” she said as volunteers picked beer cans by the swimming hole. “Getting the word out more and showing people the impact that they’re having, I think is the most important thing we can do.”
Armitage Gardens residents like Joy Dimick agree. “It’s for these guys,” she said, motioning to her granddaughter who volunteered alongside her. “We still have a generation that this world needs to be around for.”