To pick up her mother in Uplands for doctor’s appointments, Ericka Jackson has to navigate a swell of overgrown trees and weeds that spill onto the alleyway. Long branches protrude from a fence, she said, and hit her truck as she drives by.
Her 75-year-old mother is unable to use the stairs at the front of her house, so the alleyway, along the 4400 and 4500 blocks of Pen Lucy Road, is how she meets her rides.
Jackson said the alleyway has been that way for quite some time now, and anyone who drives through has to deal with the mess. And it is not the only neighborhood alleyway that needs overgrown greenery cleared.
“This is not just a me problem. This is a whole strip of the neighborhood,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s concern reached the Uplands Community Association president David Smallwood, who has been trying to address dumping and overgrown forestry in his alleyway and at a nearby park less than half a mile away. The outdoor maintenance concerns residents raised involve multiple city agencies — including Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Public Works — making it difficult, Smallwood said, to get complaints addressed.
The overgrown trees and weeds in Jackson’s mother’s alley come from the city-owned property that was once home to the New Psalmist Baptist Church, which moved out and is now a vacant property the DHCD monitors.
Getting the area cleaned up shows the difficulty communities face when trying to get help from the city on what seem like basic problems. Neighborhood residents have faced monthslong bureaucracy, and had to navigate several departments that are responsible for different aspects of the issue.
A DHCD spokesperson, Tammy Hawley, wrote in an email that the Department of Public Works would only cut the grass in front of the property along Old Frederick Road. The DPW and the Department of Transportation maintain the area along the alleyway, and DPW is responsible for trash collection and dirty alley complaints. DOT, Hawley said, is responsible for cutting back the trees or growth in the alley if they’re preventing vehicle access. If power lines are affected in the alley, Baltimore Gas and Electric may also cut back the trees.
Such non-emergency maintenance requests are handled by 311, but Hawley said the department is unaware of any current complaints about the area.
But Smallwood said he has made several complaints to 311 beginning in February, and that he contacted several city departments about the dumping and the growth in the alleyway behind his home, which is adjacent to what neighbors refer to as Pen Lucy Park. He encourages others to do the same. Smallwood said he also called the mayor’s office twice in June. The situation, Smallwood said, needs to be thoroughly addressed.
“They continue to ignore our plight,” he said.
Jennifer Combs, a DPW public information officer, said the Bureau of Solid Waste visited Smallwood’s alley on July 25 and confirmed there was overgrowth. However, overgrowth issues have to be addressed by DOT and DHCD, she said. Combs said her department found there wasn’t excessive trash and debris, but crews would come out the following day to clear leaves. The forestry behind Smallwood’s house is overseen by Recreation and Parks. The department did not return requests for comment about this specific area, but did confirm it manages the park.
Smallwood said Recreation and Parks placed three large boulders behind his house several years ago to help prevent people from pulling up trucks and dumping items. It helped, but they continued to dump at other spots along the alley, Smallwood said — and the area has become tremendously overgrown. Before a back surgery in January 2021, Smallwood and his son would spend at least four hours cutting back the greenery in the alleyway. And after a body was found near the overgrowth in the park, Smallwood thought efforts to address his concerns would be heightened.
“We work hard to try and keep our community nice,” he said, emphasizing a need to be able to rely on city services as well.
Fallen trees in the forested area of the park damaged fencing that took over a year to repair. In an email thread between multiple city agencies, the maintenance request to fix the fence was approved and cost $11,600. The overall forestry maintenance, estimated to cost $27,000, was not approved because of funding constraints.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who represents the area, said cleaning up the area behind Smallwood’s house is “complicated.”
“It’s not a lack of communication or caring for concerns. There’s just been a lack of resources when this stuff was taking place,” he said.
Not only are city agencies still experiencing a backlog from the pandemic and budget changes, Burnett said, it’s unsafe to send volunteers or city employees to the area to retrieve items that have been dumped. Burnett said he went down the hillside himself and couldn’t imagine using equipment or trying to lift heavy objects up the hillside’s incline.
The situation, he said, reflects Baltimore as a city and the ability to maintain large green spaces. Burnett shares the frustration of the residents, he said, and agrees that some requests shouldn’t take so long. However, he also understands the financial and resource limitations city agencies face.
Burnett hopes this specific situation doesn’t overshadow the progress and investments in Uplands in the last few years: road resurfacing on Uplands Parkway, $12 million expected from the American Rescue Plan for phase two of a development with affordable rental housing, some re-painted street lights in the area and a street dedication to a long-time resident who kept the community clean.
“I have lot of respect for the folks that advocate for that community and hopefully, this is something that we can get done for them moving forward,” Burnett said. “But, the pandemic has been a challenge and cost cutting has impacted residents and communities alike.”
After speaking to The Baltimore Banner, Smallwood said Recreation and Parks reached out to him to have another meeting over a year after his first meeting. He’s hopeful they’ll address concerns this time after discussing the different departments that would need to get involved, including the forestry division, but that it would be a process.
“I do expect something to happen. I really do,” Smallwood said.