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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Baltimore Reclaiming Chesapeake Bay

Air Date: Week of

There is a new movement in the city of Baltimore to unite citizens for urban and natural renewal. Underlying the effort is the belief that by helping restore and revitalize the city, the bay will be spared further suburban development that often threatens the fragile watershed environment. City church leaders and ordinary citizens are spending more time on the bay as well, experiencing the connection between this once bustling port town and its surrounding waterway. Martha Honey reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This time of year, Maryland's Chesapeake Bay is just gorgeous: sailboats, sea birds and sunsets make it all seem magical. But just beneath the surface is an ecological disaster. Over-fishing and pollution have decimated the once abundant populations of oysters and crabs, and even the common rock fish is getting harder and harder to find. Antipollution laws and other government efforts have slowed Chesapeake Bay's decline, but increasingly, community efforts are seeking to make a difference. In Baltimore, some citizens are linking suburban sprawl to the increase of bay pollution and to the decline of the center city. They say saving the city will help save the bay. They're a coalition of civil rights and environmental organizers. Martha Honey has our report.

(Men and women yelling: "Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho!...")

HONEY: For most of the two dozen men and women pulling in the long lines, this is their first trip on a fishing boat. They are African American ministers and parishioners from Baltimore, and they've been invited by the Baltimore Urban League and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to spend a day cruising the bay and seeing firsthand its problems. For the last year, this black civil rights organization and predominantly white environmental group have been working together to find ways to help the bay and its nearby watershed by helping the city. Will Baker is the Foundation's president.

BAKER: You know, Baltimore now has less than 700,000 in population. The population is declining and that's not good for the Chesapeake Bay because much of this development occurs in forests and marshland out in the countryside. So restoring Baltimore, saving the city, is key to saving the bay.

HONEY: The strategy includes getting black ministers on board. First the Foundation's educational boat, and then the project. Churches are central institutions in Baltimore's inner city. Today the minister's catch includes only one live crab, and a wide assortment of manmade fish.

(Woman: "Very popular cigarette butt fish. Many of fiberglass acts like a filter. Filter feeders, swims through the water filtering plankton out of the water. And always the Styrofoam peanut fish: they come in green, white, round, S-shaped, every color you can imagine. And...")

HONEY: Amid the humor, the message is not lost on Baptist minister Isaiah Hill.

HILL: Well, the main thing is you know, after getting a first-hand look at the type of pollution that was there, I mean, it really caused everyone to become aware of the danger that we face. I'm excited. I can't wait to get back to my youngsters so I can tell them to come on and go on the boat ride and experience what I experienced. But hopefully if you catch the youngsters while they're young, their minds are more receptive.

(A group of children. Man: "So why do you think worms are good? Why do you think worms are good for the soil?" Child: "They don't bite you." Man: "Because they don't bite you? I think...")

HONEY: Catching young people is one of the main aims of Baltimore's first ever EnviroFest, promoted in part by the Urban League and the Bay Foundation. Interactive displays under large canvas colored tents draw kids to learn about water pollution, green households products, gardening, and environmentally friendly insects.

(Man: "Yeah, here let me pick him up for you because " " Child:"Oh!" Man: "You nearly had one...")

HONEY: The chief organizer of EnviroFest is Joyce Bramble, publisher of the Baltimore Times and board member of the Urban League. The League has historically focused on job training and has identified the field of environmental protection as a main growth industry for the coming century. Bramble is a strong advocate of the League's Coalition with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

BRAMBLE: What's happening is that they're bringing the skills of both organizations together and they're going to, they're forming a bond. The Chesapeake Bay brings technology, its knowledge of all the things that have to be done in times, in terms of the environment. The Urban League brings the inner city person who needs to be made aware of what's going on in the environment. The Urban League also has a training piece in terms of jobs...

HONEY: The jobs issue is the glue that binds the 2 organizations together. It's a long-term strategy which includes teaching inner city kids about the bay, working with local high schools and colleges to encourage these students to study biology, chemistry, and environmental sciences, and systematically training African Americans for a range of high and low tech jobs in environmental fields. The Coalition is joining forces with some other local initiatives to revitalize Baltimore's neighborhoods, to make the inner city more livable and to slow urban flight.

(Sirens down the street)

HONEY: Franklin Square is one of Baltimore's most depressed neighborhoods, but community activists and children from the local Martin Luther King Recreation Center are working to create patches of beauty amongst the urban blight.

ANDERSON: We planted flowers and stuff over there and, like, they made like a shape of Africa out of rocks and they, flowers are growing out of Africa, and we, um, planted some of the flowers over there. And some flowers are supposed to be growing back there.

HONEY: Ten-year-old Luthela Anderson proudly points through the wire fence that surrounds this community garden. This used to be a vacant lot used by drug dealers. now it contains a flower-filled map of Africa. Franklin Square has a half dozen other neighborhood vegetable and flower gardens, as well as dozens of newly planted trees along the streets. Sally Lumus is managing the project, which is assisted by the US Forest Service.

LUMUS: What we're trying to do is help people restore their environment as well as restoring their communities. It gets really hot in the summer, and part of what we're trying to do is make some nice, cool places outdoors where people can enjoy themselves.

HONEY: In the vision of the new Urban League-Chesapeake Bay Foundation alliance, reclaiming these vacant lots will do more than just make blighted neighborhoods better places to live. They'll also help cut down on illegal dumping of toxic wastes. These hazardous chemicals seep into the ground and ultimately into the bay, threatening the health of living things along the way. The Alliance is planning a major anti-toxics campaign as part of its long -term effort to restore the bay.

(Boat horns. Man: "Fascinating.")

HONEY: Back at the bay, in Annapolis, fisherman Earl White explains that he's become an environmental educator. He's 75, and should have retired. But instead, he started working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, taking young people out in boats from Baltimore and other cities to teach them about the dangers facing the bay.

WHITE: I do believe it's getting better. It will, if they do, like " you all get together and agree, say we're going to clean this bay up and get it back, you know what I mean? They'll do it. It'll come.

HONEY: The Baltimore Urban League and Chesapeake Bay Foundation are hoping their innovative coalition will become a model for other parts of the country. Already, Washington, Norfolk, and several other cities are talking about starting similar programs. And activists say with the tide in Washington turning sharply away from government regulation, efforts to save both the environment and urban areas may rest more in coming years with citizen coalitions with this rather than with government programs. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Honey in Baltimore.



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