The Stream Cleaner

Irene Smith with her daughters Violet, Maya and Bella

Every day for more than a year, Irene Smith has been collecting garbage from the Herring Run in northeast Baltimore. Her die-hard stream cleaning started as a service project in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but when her marriage fell apart, she threw herself more deeply into the work. “Every time trauma happens to me, I find refuge in nature,” she says. “When my life is chaos, I take a walk in the woods.”

Nominally employed by the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, she is officially a “park steward,” and she takes the definition of “steward” — someone who cares for something important — to heart. Working for a very slim wage, she doesn’t haul a thousand pounds a week, expose herself to pollution and suffer snakebites for the money. “When you clean up trash, you are benefiting,” Smith says.

A mother of three girls, soccer coach and constant force for good in Herring Run Park, Irene’s had a varied career, from civil rights lawyer to owner of the Souper Freaks food truck and the Women’s Industrial Kitchen. When her marriage collapsed, she could only walk away. “I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’” she says. “But you just can’t go to an ashram when you have three children. I would love an ashram. My ashram is a garbage pile.”

Because of her work in the stream, she’s been stung by bees in the face, punctured by heroin needles and she contracted a rash from a fungus on a rose bush that gave her hives for a month. She’s bled a lot, and she’s been mugged, too. “I think I’m able to do this job because I have a lot of energy and I’m optimistic,” she says. “For me, it’s a pleasure and a joy to come across trash because it’s an opportunity to make a difference today.”

What she pulls from the stream, she says, tells us a lot about who we, the citizens of Baltimore, are. Every day she finds and bags diapers, condoms, fast food packaging, cigarillos, juice box foil pouches, pedicure toe grippers, miles of Styrofoam and a shameful number of plastic water bottles. More unusual finds include shopping carts, pianos, baby dolls, mountains of tires and nine cars abandoned in the Armistead Gardens section of the stream.

“I’ve learned so much about our community at the stream,” she says. “Our addiction to heroin. Our consumer addiction to fast and easy. I’ve watched joggers take one sip from a plastic water bottle and toss it.”
One of the more rewarding benefits to Irene’s work is that she’s gotten to know her community, and they’ve gotten to know her. “There’s a driver for Solid Waste—his name is Antoine—he’s put every single one of the garbage bags I’ve left for him on his truck. I’ve gotten to know the basketball kids, the people who have sex by the stream, the people who smoke pot there, the stroller moms. I say to the kids, ‘Honey, I love you. Would you please put your condom in the trash?’”

Working six hours a day, seven days a week, Irene has noticed that there isn’t nearly as much garbage to clean up at the Run anymore—but she can still guarantee four full 55-gallon contractor bags every day. She sorts everything that can possibly be recycled, and sells about 800 pounds of metal per week to Owl Metals, the profits from which replenish her supply of contractor bags and rubber gloves, which get worn through from pollution at a rate of about one pair per day.

Irene laments that the job of keeping our streams clean gets lost in a bureaucratic shuffle. The Department of Recreation and Parks, she says, wants the Department of Public Works to clean up the trash, but at DPW the Water Division only works with potable water (so not the stream water), and the Solid Waste division only works with the garbage in garbage cans.

“Parks should be where we showcase best practices for ecology and conservation,” she says.

How does she keep her chin up through it all? “It never, ever, ever gets to me. If I don’t pick up the Styrofoam, a turtle chokes. I wear a St. Francis of Assisi medal around my neck, and his prayer goes through my head. There are the moments with a fox, with a family of deer. Dog walkers and joggers look out for me. The miracle is there every day.”

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