Full of hope for a greener new year, dozens of neighbors near Patterson Park turned out Saturday morning to wrestle 27 saplings into newly cut holes in the sidewalk along a nearly treeless block of rowhouses.
"One, two, three, go!" called out Matt Dodd, as he and two other residents -- including 7-year-old Jordan Anderson -- rolled the hefty root ball of a 7-foot Armstrong maple into its freshly dug hole in the 100 block of N. Curley St.
Community leaders said it was the opening salvo in a campaign to plant more than 100 new trees in the coming year in an East Baltimore neighborhood that's long on pavement and short on greenery.
Even arid Phoenix, Ariz., in the desert has four times as thick a tree canopy as does this residential area northeast of Patterson Park, a situation that Robbyn Lewis, chairwoman of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association's greening committee, finds appalling.
"This was nothing but sidewalk," she said, pointing down the narrow street. "There was one half-dead tree. The rest was all concrete."
The neighborhood group is working to extend the green of the 155-acre park into the asphalt and concrete of the neighborhood. It's something the city is committed to doing, at least on paper. Baltimore's sustainability plan, adopted under former Mayor Sheila Dixon, calls for doubling the city's tree canopy over the next nearly 30 years.
But the city's budget for tree planting was slashed this year, according to City Council member James B. Kraft, who represents the Patterson Park area. Kraft said that while free trees are still available for planting, the needed expertise and equipment are not.
"People in Baltimore have not made it an issue," said Lewis, a public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. "They'll fight for slots. We want to fight for trees."
Trees help clean the air, soak up polluted water and reduce air conditioning bills in summer. And, Lewis noted, the added greenery also helps reduce crime and increase neighborly behavior by making the streets more pleasant places to be.
So the Patterson Park group took matters into its own hands and rounded up more than $60,000 in grants and donations to finance its project -- including major support from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a state-chartered grant maker, and Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., a local nonprofit.
The association hired Parks & People Foundation, another nonprofit that works to improve the city's green spaces, to break holes in the sidewalk and help plant the trees. Aiding the effort were members of the foundation's Green Up Clean Up work force, underwritten with federal stimulus funds. Guy Hager, a foundation official, said the plantings consisted of Armstrong maples, which grow relatively straight up -- an asset on narrow urban streets -- and serviceberries, which produce fruit that should attract birds to the neighborhood.
"I'm psyched," said resident Callie Schwartz, 35, who helped organize her neighbors for the planting. She is the education coordinator at the nearby Patterson Park Audubon Center, where she teaches youngsters about nature.
Trees were only planted in front of homes where residents had asked for them. Residents will be expected to water the saplings, mulch them and "guard them," as one youngster, 3-year-old Zoe Munro, put it.
Her parents, Robin and James Munro, looked on in satisfaction as volunteers finished planting the last of the trees on their block. The couple just moved to Baltimore from Riverside, Calif., last summer, and Robin's husband reminded her that "the first thing you said was, 'I want to put a tree on the street.'"
Satisfying as it was to have her own serviceberry now, Robin Munro said she also relished the way the project was bringing residents together.
"It feels good moving from a suburb where it's tough to get to know your neighbors," she said, to this one, where residents live close together and see each other on the streets. "I am so excited that we're here."