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Not so Green Acres

City Man Uses YouTube To Advocate For Better Maintenance Of Baltimore Parks

Frank Klein
SPEAKING FOR THE TREES: Activist Chris Delaporte is trying to encourage Baltimoreans--and, ultimately, the city--to take better care of its public parks.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 10/10/2007

Chris Delaporte's aerial map of Druid Hill Park, annotated in yellow, looks like a battle plan. Along the mile-by-quarter-mile crescent comprising the park's western edge, block letters announce, "Drugs Sold Here," "Drugs Stored Here," "Drugs Used Here," "Dark and Foreboding," and "Cannot See Through."

Delaporte passes copies of the map around a big conference table at Cho Benn Holback and Associates, the architecture firm on the 14th floor of 100 N. Charles St. It is late on the afternoon of Sept. 28 and the dozen or so architects sip Yuenglings, pick at Chinese take-out, and survey the map while Delaporte tries to recruit them into his conspiracy.

"I've long thought there needed to be an independent, knowledgeable voice," advocating city park maintenance, Delaporte says, explaining how they can help amplify that voice. "If you want to volunteer to go look at something, all you have to do is go look at it, type me up an e-mail saying `I saw this.' It's really as simple as that."

And it really is that simple, on the face of it. But Delaporte, recruiting for a "leaderless, unorganized" group he calls the Park Advocate Force, is not na´ve. He brings an insider's eye--and some well-placed allies--to the effort.

Druid Hill Park was one of three "projects" Delaporte took on over the spring and summer, and in all three cases, he says, Mayor Sheila Dixon supported him and things got done. The areas of Druid Hill Park Delaporte highlighted are in much better shape today, after an intensive cleanup beginning in June and lasting until September.

"You can see through the trees now," Delaporte says, pointing to a spot on the map he says criminals formerly used as an escape route after robbing a nearby gas station.

Delaporte has been insistently, if out of the public eye, advocating better park maintenance in Baltimore City since about April 4. Now a web site (parkadvocate.net) and internet bulletin board with a couple of dozen regular posters, the Park Advocate Force recently launched its first video on free video-sharing web site YouTube. It's an eight-minute documentary on the condition of the ball fields and playgrounds at DeSoto and Tolley parks in Morrell Park, a neighborhood in the city's southwest quadrant.

"Its condition really isn't kept up to par," narrator Dennis Robinson understates as shots of graffiti and trash fill the screen. "We have everything from broken glass to drug bags on the playground, trash everywhere . . . used condoms . . . it just really doesn't give you the impression that, hey, I can really bring my child here to play and be completely safe.

"But it's got such potential," he adds. "You just see it here when you're out here."

Delaporte asks the architects to view the video and think of ways to help clean up other city parks and the Gwynns Falls Trail, the 14-mile hike-and-bike showpiece completed in 2005 at a cost of $14 million. "We belong to an idea," he says. He brushes aside a suggestion that he should be recruiting neighbors of the parks instead of "outsiders" like those around the conference table. And he's not aiming to start yet another nonprofit corporation.

"No, and I don't want to be or have to be" incorporated as a nonprofit, Delaporte says. "Nothing needs be done except belong to this idea . . . we're just trying to change the conversation to the idea, Let's take care of what we have."

The politically sensitive core of Delaporte's idea is this: Baltimore spends too much money building new parks and monuments and too little maintaining what's been built. He describes a quick and dirty survey he did of 15 city and county parks budgets this year. Most cities, Delaporte says, spend about $2.50 or $3 on operations and maintenance for every $1 on capital improvement. Baltimore, by contrast, has $23 million for capital improvements and--here's the punchline--zero budgeted under maintenance. "The maintenance budget is subsumed by the operations budget," Delaporte says. "That's not a good sign."

Delaporte cuts an odd figure sitting at the head of the conference table and guiding the architects and associates through the details of Baltimore's parks budget. On this afternoon he wears a polo shirt, khakis, and a pair of cranberry colored low-top canvas sneakers over white socks. But he's more like an eccentric chairman of the board than a random crank: For more than 30 years Delaporte administered parks for local, state, and federal governments. He ran the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service for the Carter Administration, and he was Director of Parks and Recreation for Baltimore City from 1984 to 1988, then the first Executive Director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. He co-founded the nonprofit group Parks and People, and in 2002 then Mayor Martin O'Malley hired him as Interim Parks Bureau Chief, after a similar spate of deferred park maintenance and a park-neglect series in The Sun. He left after seven months.

As before, city parks officials are holding Delaporte at arm's length. "Some people have said, kindly, `Aren't you retired?'" Delaporte says. "And I am retired, but I'm not tired."

A series of calls and e-mails to the department requesting comment on the Park Advocate Force drew this e-mailed response:

Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks is working aggressively to ensure that our over 5,700 acre park system continues to be an inviting place for reflection, relaxation and entertainment for all. But we cannot do it alone. That's why we invite the citizens of Baltimore to get involved and join us in our efforts toward a Cleaner, Greener Baltimore.

The issues raised in the video are valid concerns, which are being addressed. However, we believe that it is more effective to become "park stewards" of Baltimore's jewels rather than just being "park critics."

Our "Friends of Parks" groups assist the Department with the planning, planting and maintenance of our open green space. They also help to preserve the trees, foliage, and other natural resources in the city's parks.

To report illegal activity in the parks or maintenance issues, citizens can also call 311.

Parks spokeswoman Kia McLeod, who sent the e-mail, declined to comment on Delaporte or say whether parks officials regarded him as credible. In a subsequent phone interview, Chief of Parks Christopher Carroll confirmed that the department has no "overall comprehensive, all-inclusive written maintenance policy," and tried to explain in a simple, straightforward way the very complex task his crew of 166 workers has in maintaining the city's sprawling park system--not to mention the thousands of trees planted along city streets. Carroll says that in the 14 months since he's taken over the job, he's gotten the backlog of tree maintenance requests reduced from 7,000 to about 1,500. "We are currently working on a comprehensive maintenance master plan," Carroll says.

But he leaves the impression that he is short-staffed and under-funded, and here is where Delaporte disagrees. "What we bring to this advocacy effort is absolute, unqualified certainty, that with a little shifting inside the department, the money is there to do the job," Delaporte writes in an e-mail. "NO NEW MONEY REQUIRED."

This is where the issue gets sticky. No one opposes cleaner, better parks and more trees. The Park Advocate Force suggests the Department of Recreation and Parks is not always as efficient as it could be, and Delaporte hints that he knows how the bureaucracy works to hide laziness and worse behind budget complaints--but he insists he's not trying to be a park critic.

"We're not interested in spotting anyone," he tells the architects. "We're interested in advocating parks cleanup. They have to decide how they're going to respond."

And so Delaporte and his band of advocates are finding quiet allies within the parks bureaucracy, and they already claim to have their most important ally in the mayor's office. Repeated calls to Dixon's spokesman asking what she thinks of the park advocate went unreturned by deadline. Delaporte says Dixon's "Clean and Green" strategy inspired him to get active again, and says the mayor deserves the credit for bending the sometimes recalcitrant parks department to her will. "She was the one who counted," Delaporte says. "And when reasonably petitioned in an open forum, and with maps and facts in hand, she said in effect, `Let's do this.'"

Correction 10/23/2007: We erred in reporting figures depicting the number of tree maintenance requests in the city. According to the Department of Recreation and Parks, over five years the backlog has been reduced from 15,000 to about 7,300, although only 4,300 of those requests are "overdue for action." City Paper regrets the error.

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