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A Writer’s Crusade to Stop the Trashing of Baltimore

Tom Pelton

It’s a warm, spring afternoon in Baltimore. And in Druid Hill Park, on the east end of the park’s shimmering lake rises a 150-year-old, Moorish-style stone tower. It’s 30 feet tall, octagonal, with cloverleaf windows and a sweeping view of the rooftops and steeples of the city.

The tower stands at the top of a rolling hillside of grass that, every spring, is the scene of one of Baltimore’s most beautiful shows. Thousands of daffodils erupt into blossoms, creating waves of yellow that cascade down the green all the way to where trucks rumble past on the Jones Falls Expressway.

Today, the flowers are just green nubs trying to push their way up through the grass. But near the base of the hill, even the grass is having trouble fighting its way up into the light – because of what, at first glance, looks like a heavy, dirty snowfall.

It’s a blizzard of trash that has been thrown out of the windows of passing cars. Styrofoam cups and fast-food containers; liquor bottles and Monster energy drink cans; white grocery bags fluttering in the briars; even a broken fishing rod.

Local journalist and author Alec MacGillis has come here this Sunday afternoon to do something about it. It’s become an odd hobby of his: selecting a different trashed city corner every week or two and setting about to personally clean it all up.

He’s wearing a grimy gray sweatshirt, Orioles cap, and scruffy, graying beard, and he’s armed with a box of trash bags and work gloves.  Alec, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now writes for ProPublica and The New York Times, has published tens of thousands of words about American cities and their pathologies and struggles. He’s become a keen observer and a real expert on the politics, public policies, and crime in cities like Baltimore, where he lives and sends his kids to the public schools.

His article, "The Tragedy of Baltimore," appears as the cover story in New York Times Magazine on Sunday, March 17.  

But for all his writing, one thing Alec has no words for… is this. The trash, everywhere. And it's not just in Baltimore. Cans and cups litter the most remote wetlands and islands in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the roadsides of wealthy suburban Massachusetts and oil patch Texas. A vast raft of floating plastic swirls in the Pacific Ocean a thousand miles from nowhere.

Alec doesn’t say much about it. He just stoops down and picks it up.  And he keeps moving, filling bag after bag after bag.

Today, he posted on Facebook which corner he was targeting for his cleanup. And so, a half dozen of his friends joined him, including the pastor at his church and the pastor’s children. 

As we picked up vodka bottles and a child’s backpack with a toothbrush in it, I offered my theory about why we’re trashing our planet. 

It’s a matter of people thinking two connected thoughts: It’s all about me. And I don’t matter. People see a beer can on the floor of their car, and they toss it out the window, because they are trying to clean up their world and their lives. And their world is all they see.

They look out the window and see cans on the street, and they think: Wow, those people have trashed this city!  If I toss my can out there, too, it won’t make any difference. I’m only one person.

Alec hurls a trash bag into the back of his pickup truck – his 13th today, a personal record. The hillside beneath the Moorish tower is now green and clear, the daffodils free to bloom beside the lake.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.