With the warm weather bringing more people outside, we’re starting to notice more one of Baltimore’s perpetual problems: trash. Junk piled up in alleys because of illegal dumping; on the sides of roads from people throwing fast food containers, or whatever else, out car windows; caught in the bushes and trees in parks and floating in streams. It is everywhere — a tired, old quality of life problem dating back decades that city officials have never been able to fix.
On Monday, Mayor Brandon Scott announced that the city’s Department of Public Works will run a pilot with the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation, where it will hire three residents at $15 per hour to help keep the neighborhood clean. The employees will also receive workforce development training in hopes of eventually being hired as full-time employees. It’s a great idea — but far too small scale. Mr. Scott said he is open to expanding to other neighborhoods if the pilot works, but why wait? Trash is a problem everywhere. Right now.
New York City is tackling the issue citywide. Mayor Bill de Blasio is building a “City Cleanup Corp” with a goal of creating the “cleanest, greenest city in the United States” — and 10,000 much-needed jobs, amid all the stress on the economy caused by COVID-19. He’s billing it as part of the city’s pandemic recovery effort and using federal stimulus money to pay for it (workers will also be paid $15 an hour, as in Mayor Scott’s pilot). The plan is modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed people for conservation work on public lands, forests and parks during the Great Depression. Graffiti cleanup will be a priority of the program, which will also focus on 33 neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, and certain commercial corridors. Workers will beautify parks and green spaces, pressure wash sidewalks, design murals and tend to community gardens. They’ll also pick up litter.
Baltimore, too, should aim this high. The city wouldn’t need nearly as many workers as New York to expand the effort citywide. And now is the perfect time to do it, given the influx of federal money, and the vast numbers of people in need of jobs. But it is also something the city should find the money to keep up post pandemic — maybe through partnerships with a nonprofit, like it is doing with the pilot. We know the demands on the budget are many due to the pandemic, but a cleaner city is worth the expense.
City agencies already handle some of this work, but they clearly need help. Volunteer groups on any given weekend have taken matters into their own hands. Of course, it would also help if people took personal responsibility for their litter, but, sadly, that is not where we are. We were glad to see Baltimore’s preliminary budget included refunding the graffiti-removal program under the Department of Public Works. Former Mayor Jack Young had defunded the program to save money as a response to the pandemic — and you could see the consequences throughout the city as graffiti artists appeared to take advantage of the quiet streets to ply their trade profusely throughout town. But trash cleanup needs reinforcement, as well, as does the city’s economy.
Baltimore’s unemployment rate was 8.5% in January, nearly double the 4.9% in January 2020. People are suffering; they need to work. Our city’s public spaces are also suffering; they need some TLC. Why not bring the two together? Addressing both problems would be nothing but advantageous for the city. A dirty city is one that doesn’t seem to have a sense of pride. When people are gainfully employed they also feel better about themselves and are less likely to turn to crimes of poverty, such as dealing drugs to feed their families.
We should have the goal of being America’s cleanest city just like New York, and we could do it with our own corps of workers looking to beautify the city. City leaders just need the will and vision to make it happen.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.