A down-to-earth strategy for cleaning up city streets


They've tried "zero tolerance." They've tried empowerment zones. They've tried demolishing public housing high-rises. Now, Baltimore officials are trying the latest proposed cure for drug-ridden streets and urban blight: garden mulch.

Hoping to bring a fresher look and perhaps even a whiff of woods to some of Baltimore's 12,573 vacant lots, a new program aims to scatter several tons of mulch throughout the city's most dilapidated neighborhoods. Mayor Martin O'Malley imported the earthy strategy from Chicago, hoping that it will boost morale in city blocks besieged by crime and rubbish.

"What I like best about the mulch is that it sends a signal, however small, that we know a vacant lot is here in this neighborhood," O'Malley said. "However small, the message is that City Hall is paying attention to this little patch of earth."

The pilot program has finished clearing and mulching about a dozen vacant city-owned lots this winter, all concentrated in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver. This spring, officials said, the plan is to spread mulch on vacant lots along the city's main corridors.

The sight of mulch has come as a surprise to residents near the southeast corner of North Avenue and Aisquith Street, where city forestry workers recently laid four inches of wood chips.

"It makes the appearance more attractive," said Sandy Johnson, who noted that she had no idea at first why the mulch had been left in her neighborhood. "And it does give off a nice smell."

The neighborhood has its share of eyesores - one nearby vacant lot was strewn with refuse and old mattresses - and is a regular hangout for drug dealers who make sales in broad daylight outside a fried-chicken carryout.

For a city with gaping holes in its housing stock, putting down mulch - made by the city from dead and storm-damaged trees it clears from properties - in its vacant spaces is a modest solution to an enormous problem. Along with the vacant lots, Baltimore has 12,045 abandoned houses, according to a recent estimate by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

The Oliver neighborhood and its surrounding streets and tumbledown corners are considered some of the toughest city terrain. In October, a family of seven perished in their Oliver home after it was set ablaze by a neighbor seeking revenge for the family's cooperation with police, investigators say.

Despite the staggering number of vacant houses and associated problems, O'Malley and other city officials say they've got to start somewhere.

"I'd like to go wholesale with it," the mayor said of the idea of spreading mulch. "The good news is that mulch is in plentiful supply, the more dead trees we have."

Before the mulch is spread, vacant lots are cleaned of debris, trash and used drug paraphernalia. Some of the lots will be landscaped with tiny trees and faux wrought-iron black fences. Dozens more vacant lots will be mulched this summer by the city's Recreation and Parks Department.

Mulch, which keeps the ground warmer in winter and cooler in summer, will break down into soil in a year or so, said Marion Bedingfield, the city arborist. After that, it is not clear what the city intends to do with the lots in the program. Whether some lots could be converted into community garden plots has not been decided, city officials said.

In Chicago, which put the mulch theory to work in the early 1990s, the idea is used in all 50 city wards. It began as a way to keep weeds from sprouting but grew into something much bigger.

Al Sanchez, Chicago's commissioner of streets and sanitation, said mulched lots - simple as they seem - help to improve a community.

"They get rave reviews with the citizens. ... You can't believe the response, it's so positive," Sanchez said. "It helps the whole neighborhood. It might be a vacant lot, but it doesn't have to look like a deplorable slum."

Chicago, Sanchez said, has about 28,500 vacant lots in a city with 2.9 million residents, which is more than four times the size of Baltimore's population.

Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, known as a "greening" advocate who keeps a roof garden atop City Hall, started the mulch program as part of a larger philosophy of having a "clean, vibrant Chicago," Sanchez said. He added, "It's not costing us a dime to plow wood chips from the city's dead trees back to the environment. And we save on disposal."

The Chicago mulch program has slowed somewhat because the streets are full of construction. "In the last decade, we've seen development in the communities with new libraries, police stations, fire stations and a revitalization of skid row," Sanchez said.

Bedingfield, the city official who discovered the Chicago program on a visit last fall for a conference on the long-horned beetle, is convinced of the therapeutic value of mulching.

"It inspired me," the arborist said. "Hopefully, we'll have the accent of trees, too."

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