By Heather Dewar
Baltimore, MD (July 26, 2010)- A Parks & People program puts locals to work greening and cleaning up the city. Wearing a sunshine-yellow outfit and a skeptical look, Michelle Redfern strides into a Harlem Park alley and gives it the sniff test.
“It smells a lot better,” says Redfern, a member of a Parks & People Foundation work team that has invested copious amounts of sweat equity in this alley behind the 1100 block of Vincent Street. Before her crew arrived in mid-July, Redfern says, the place was a disgrace. Garbage was knee-deep in parts of the alley and an adjoining open space, set aside long ago for a community park that existed only on paper. “I personally found a dead dog back here,” Redfern says. “Now, wow! You wouldn’t recognize it.”
Now the open area is neatly mown and planted with young trees, and the alley air is as sweet as Redfern’s smile. The 43-year-old Harlem Park resident was the executive assistant to the director of a small nonprofit until it lost its funding in 2009. After nearly a year out of work, Redfern landed one of twenty-two jobs in a program that Parks & People calls Green Up, Clean Up.
Funded by a $1 million, eighteen-month federal stimulus grant, the program’s five work crews are clearing vacant lots, planting street trees, installing community gardens, and jack-hammering asphalt parking lots to replace them with bay-friendly native perennials. They’re removing invasive trees and vines that have taken over a 9-acre swath of Druid Hill Park and swallowed up a 140-year-old ruined mansion where the park superintendent once lived. And they’re going door to door in some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods, asking residents for their opinions, suggestions, and help.
When Parks & People staffers started hiring back in January, more than six hundred people applied for jobs that paid between $11 and $13 an hour with benefits, says Bryant Smith, an assistant manager of community forestry. All of the jobs went to city residents, most of whom live in the neighborhoods where they work.
Some of the Green Up, Clean Up teams are doing work that would have been done by the city’s recreation and parks department, before budget cuts virtually eliminated the department’s horticulture and forestry divisions last month, says Jacqueline Carrera, Parks & People’s executive director. “All across the country, recreation and parks departments and forestry divisions are just getting hammered” by state and municipal budget problems, she says, nothing that other organizations are pitching in where they can, and so are volunteers. “Nobody’s able to do this humongous job alone.”
Although the stimulus-funded jobs are not permanent, the foundation hopes to keep the teams working after the grant expires, Bryant said. Meanwhile the workers are learning skills intended to help them land green-collar jobs.
Mary Washington, associate director of the foundation’s Great Parks, Clean Streams, and Green Communities program, says the Green Up Clean Up workers are learning how to assess community needs, devise plans to meet them, and get residents involved in the work. The goal is to teach the workers a holistic approach to solving the problems of poverty and environmental degradation, she says. “We are the bridge between environmental justice and conservation. The storm water from these communities flows into the Middle River, and the Middle River feeds into the Chesapeake Bay … so we have to restore these communities and make them sustainable if we’re going to restore the bay.”
Redfern, who moved here ten years ago from Philadelphia, has gotten that message and figured out how to pass it on. “It’s all in how you talk to people,” she says. “Baltimore is a big crabbing town. So when you tell people, ‘We want to protect the watershed to protect the crabs,’ you get people on board.”