For the past 15 years, proud residents of the once-shoddy Barre Circle neighborhood in Pigtown - many of whom bought their houses from the city for a dollar - have held a cleanup day one Saturday a month.
At the residents' request, a city official long ago agreed to let a trash truck came by, regular as clockwork, to haul the trash, debris and trimmings away. The three-square-block neighborhood, now lined with impeccably restored red-brick rowhouses, became a model of spotlessness, its green spaces trimmed and tidy, its sidewalks uncluttered.
The city truck, its driver working on overtime, was crucial to the area's efforts, its appearances in Barre Circle above and beyond the usual bulk and trash pickups that take place there and throughout the city.
But last month, residents of Barre Circle - as well as those in Reservoir Hill, Washington Village and Belair-Edison, the only other areas to have received the perk - were informed that because of budgetary constraints, the trucks would no longer be coming. Instead, they were told, the city would provide trash bins.
The announcement was dumbfounding to Barre Circle's residents, who over the years had become accustomed to the arrival of the truck and its driver, Matthew Grezelik - even if, in fairness, his was a service not routinely received by everyone in the city.
"I don't see the economics of doing this," said Judy Aleksalza, who acquired her so-called dollar house on West Barre Street in 1979 and got a $65,000 city-backed loan to fix it up. "The city saves so much money by the volunteers doing its cleanup that it seems penny-wise and pound foolish to not have a truck. I don't know what we're going to do."
Aleksalza, 65, who spent three decades as a videotape editor at WJZ-Channel 13, said she and the other 116 households in Barre Circle, just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and downtown Baltimore, pay a total of almost $500,000 a year in property taxes. "The least the city can do," she said, "is to give us a truck and a driver once a month."
There is no good place on the narrow streets to park a trash bin, she said, and, in any event, some residents at the fringes of the neighborhood are unlikely to walk three blocks to dump their trash. As a result, the area will probably deteriorate, Aleksalza said during a walk of its streets a few days ago. In one of 14 green spaces, a heavy lamp had tumbled to the ground from atop a lamppost. Nearby, someone had dumped an old table. Disposing of such things, she said, used to be easy with the truck.
The cutback seems paradoxical, Aleksalza and other residents said, when viewed in the context of Mayor Sheila Dixon's much-vaunted plans to spruce up the city.
Last week, the Department of Public Works announced a citywide schedule of events intended to demonstrate its "commitment to making Baltimore cleaner and greener," including an April 19 "spring cleanup" of sidewalks, alleys, vacant lots and playgrounds and a sweep of the Middle Branch shoreline May 3. In addition, the announcement drew attention to the "Pitch-In" program, under which communities can ask the DPW to remove debris that's been collected in specific places.
When initially contacted by The Sun, Kurt L. Kocher, a public works spokesman, said that the department does not have the resources to dedicate trucks and drivers to specific areas of the city. "If you provide that to a neighborhood, it snowballs to where everyone expects the same service," he said, describing the cutback as an efficiency measure. "We have to look at the whole picture."
Later, after speaking with the department's acting director, David Scott, and its solid-waste administrator, Valentina Ukwuoma, and alerting them to the neighborhood's outcry, Kocher was more conciliatory. "It's a new day," said Kocher, recounting that Scott had asked Ukwuoma to speak with residents - she plans to attend a neighborhood association meeting Thursday - to explain that while the "favor" of a special truck would no longer be extended, other options remain.
Kocher said the DPW will honor occasional requests for trash trucks on Mondays, a day previously devoted to recycling pickups. "Single-stream recycling has opened up other opportunities," he said. "Those workers can do other things."
Residents of Reservoir Hill, Washington Village and Belair-Edison have not complained about the end of the special truck service, Kocher said, a fact that might support the argument of Barre Circle's residents that they deserve a reinstatement of their monthly truck precisely because they take the trouble to keep their streets and green spaces clean.
"If you go down the street to the Paca neighborhood, they never clean their community," Aleksalza said.
Ralph Ballman, who moved to Barre Circle about 15 years ago, shortly before he and others began the monthly cleanups, said the special truck was not provided elsewhere "because people didn't ask for it."
"Name me another neighborhood that does a monthly cleanup," said Ballman, who remembers asking Joseph Kolodziejski, who was then head of the Bureau of Solid Waste, for the truck in 1993. "We started calling for pickups every month, March through November, on the third Saturday of every month."
After a while, Ballman said, the truck came "automatically." It also became clear that of all the drivers, Grezelik was the most diligent. He helped load trash, brought city tools for trimming trees, and, if the truck filled up, he would empty it and return. At the residents' request, Grezelik became the regular driver.
"The city was willing to partner with us," said Ballman, who moved to Ellicott City in 1997. "We had cleanups when no one else did."