The mural painted on the sidewalk shouts, “Keep it Clean!” in bubble letters adorned with daisies.

The sidewalk around it, though, is anything but. A giant cardboard box, which once contained a sofa lounge, obscures most of the mural. Plastic bags float into it with the wind. Trash from a can marked with an address up the block spills over onto the orange part of a painted daisy.

Leanna Wetmore sighed. Again. The community coordinator for the Healthy Harbor Initiative at the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore took out her mobile phone, snapped a photo, and typed in the appropriate address. She sent the information to Baltimore City’s 311 operator, and got a tracking number to check the progress of cleanup.

So it goes in the alleys of Baltimore, where water, grease and trash spill on the pavement, flow into the storm drains and, eventually, into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Walking the alleys of the Harris Creek watershed in East Baltimore with Wetmore is a study in contrasts. The blocks closest to Patterson Park are the cleanest. The blocks closer to busy Fayette Street have more trash in the alleys, more evidence of rats chewing through the trash bags.

Several years ago, the Healthy Harbor Initiative and the watershed group Blue Water Baltimore began working with the city to engage residents in cleaning up their city. Blue Water got a $500,000 grant from the state to put in bioretention basins (large rain gardens), a street mural and new pervious walkways at Library Square, by the Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Linwood Avenue.

Trees line the square, which was once all impervious concrete, and the cheerful mural, which encompasses the large storm drain in the square, has become a conversation piece. Overlooking the square is another colorful mural, painted on the side of a row house, that says, “Everything you can imagine is real.”

As a passing car blasted Aretha Franklin, pedestrians sauntered by, looking at the street mural. A few commented to Wetmore that the square was looking good.

At one time, the present-day site of Library Square was waterfront, on Harris Creek. The U.S.S. Constellation was built on the creek, and berthed there for a time. Now, the creek is paved over, but flash flooding still reminds residents of their one-time waterfront homes. The bioretention areas slow down runoff and protect homes as well as keep some runoff-borne pollution out of the harbor. 

“To try to get people to acknowledge the environment — the water — when they’re completely removed from it is a challenge,” Wetmore said. “People aren’t ready to talk about it. They’re focused on their quality of life. But here, we showed residents what we could do. We showed people that things can change.”

Change has been slow, and street-dependent. On an alley near Library Square, Wetmore snapped a photo of an overflowing can with water streaming around it. The water isn’t coming from the can; Wetmore wasn’t sure if it was coming from a broken pipe or another source. By Fayette and Port streets, the alley is clean — because Bernard Freeman has been patrolling the alley and cleaning it daily.

“You’re not comfortable sitting out here on your stoop with all that trash around,” said Freeman, 55, who lives on the corner with his family. “This little part of the street, it stays clean. All that trash in the alley is going to do is come down this way, and I’ll be the one getting it up anyway.”

Freeman wishes there were more neighbors like him. “There may be one or two,” he said. But the city has been trying to help make it easier.

The Department of Public Works has provided 171,000 trash cans with lids tethered by cables. Those are in addition to the 10,000 provided last year as part of a pilot program, said department spokesman Jeff Raymond. The city has also provided recycling bins, though residents sometimes still put trash in them.

“We hear people say, ‘I don’t need one. I don’t generate enough trash,’” Raymond said of the cans. “The idea is not to fill it, but to have a place to put it.”

The Rauch Foundation funded much of the mural project, buying cans, paint and cleaning supplies as well as providing stipends for the artists, Wetmore said. The murals adorn sidewalks and walls in six close-together neighborhoods. Some have Chesapeake Bay and nature themes, others simple messages like “No Dumping” or “Keep it Clean.”

Wetmore’s mood improves when she finally spots a trash can, lid affixed, with a Healthy Harbor sticker on it next to a butterfly sidewalk mural that she helped paint, one of several in this neighborhood. Local teenagers painted some of the other murals, as Healthy Harbor partnered with Baltimore United Viewfinders, a nonprofit focused on youth telling stories through art. Healthy Harbor was able to pay them for the work.

“It’s very engaging for the kids,” said Viewfinders program director Gerad Forte. “It kind of helps getting the young folks involved.”

Wetmore, 37, was trained as an artist and now calls herself the “Trash Princess.” She said that she hopes that residents will think of the back of their houses as an extension of the front. She also hopes that the murals painted around Patterson Park and along Fayette Street will increase calls to the city’s 311 operator, and requests to the city for trash cans and recycle bins.

Raymond said that he hopes so, too. He said the city is happy to work with private citizens and nonprofits, even if Blue Water Baltimore has repeatedly complained about the city’s slow pace in correcting chronic sewage overflows and leaks. The city’s department of public works, he said, considers itself an environmental organization, too, with a focus on public health.

Cleaning up the streets leading to the Inner Harbor, he said, “is going to take changes in behavior, and that doesn’t come easily. But the alternative is to give up, and that’s not a good alternative at all.”