Fashioning Beauty amid Chaos: A Baltimore Native Uses a Mosaic of Different Projects to Improve His Hometown's Urban Environment. (Earthkeepers)

By Leatherman, Courtney | American Forests, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Fashioning Beauty amid Chaos: A Baltimore Native Uses a Mosaic of Different Projects to Improve His Hometown's Urban Environment. (Earthkeepers)


Leatherman, Courtney, American Forests


Mosaic isn't just the way Bryant Smith expresses himself artistically, it's a metaphor for the way he approaches urban forestry. Just as he brings together disparate pieces--blue tiles, broken pottery, bits of mirror--to form one big picture, so too he brings together different projects--community outreach, vacant lot restoration, a prison garden--to do one thing: improve the urban environment in Baltimore.

A social-science technician with the U.S. Forest Service, Smith knows a lot about that environment. He grew up in the Broadway Homes Housing Complex in downtown Baltimore. A progeny of the projects, Smith--who's better known as "Spoon"--says, "I rolled with the fellas, I participated in illegal activities."

As for trees, the closest association he had was with an oak outside his front door: his grandmother used it for switches. Needless to say, he was not predisposed toward trees.

Most people he knew saw them as a nuisance--their leaves were messy and they were said to attract rats. But in the early 1990s, Smith made a life-changing move. He took a job at a community outreach center, which "was like the lifeboat coming in." That "helped me see that there's a different way of life, that the way we're living is not normal and it's not right."

His next epiphany came when he saw a girl at the center throw trash in the gutter. "That lack of knowing about the environment and that constant abuse sparked the thirst to know more, so that I could then educate my people." He did lots of educating as a street-tree coordinator for a local nonprofit, the Parks and People Foundation. He learned "the true benefit of a tree"--and how to identify one. And he taught his mother that the tree in their backyard wasn't poison ivy but Ailanthus altissima--"tree of heaven" to many, "ghetto palm" to Smith.

Now, wearing spoon rings and a spoon bracelet, describing the work he did there for six years--planting trees and restoring vacant lots--it's hard to reconcile the 25-year-old man he is with the boy in the 'hood he was. …

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