It’s a steamy summer afternoon in East Baltimore, and a decommissioned yellow school bus is already filling up with paying customers to see the sights. Before he gets behind the wheel, Glenn Ross, a former city contractor and current 13th Distric Councilmanic community liaison, makes sure the windows are down, so in passing some “attractions,” passengers will get their full effect: the smell of raw sewage and the feel of the dust that floats from the landfills.
You see, Glenn Ross is conducting a “Toxic Tour,” a rolling wrapup of some of the city locations most in need of environmental cleanup. Ross started his Toxic Tour three years ago hoping to educate people about East Baltimore’s environmental ills.
Actually, Ross did his first tour—on foot—a little earlier, at the behest of a Johns Hopkins University student who knew of him through his lectures and involvement in health research at the university.
In time, Hopkins’s SOURCE—a community service learning center—was pitching in $65 per tour and providing a driver for students to make the educational trip through the city.
“After SOURCE came on, a couple of reporters took the tour, wrote about it, and it just snowballed,” says Ross. He has since drawn crowds both from local houses of faith as well as institutions like Loyola College and MICA, with each group paying $250 to $300 for the ride and presentation.
The bus rolls past the 3000 block of Biddle Street, the site of a dump piled four stories high with metals and other toxic construction scraps. Later, it’s on to the Jones Falls watershed where tourists on rainy days see muddy stormwater runoff gushing through sewer pipes, ultimately funneling into the harbor.
The city has taken measures to clean up the filth, budgeting $1 billion in stormwater-management projects. But Ross tells people, “The problems have gone on so long that they are bigger than our government. So residents need to rally together.”
“Once industrial buildings are torn down or the operations close, unless the properties are reused, no attention is drawn to the potential hazards left behind,” says Michael Trush, an Environmental Health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But when you take the Toxic Tour, you see these sites for yourself, and when you realize Baltimore neighborhoods’ proximity to them, it is shocking.”
These days, the burly, 58-year-old Ross is scouring for more investors to keep the tour on the road. He plans to get another bus to cover more ground and to take more time so riders can step down to the street and talk to residents of the tainted neighborhoods. Now he’s looking for backing through contacts he’s made sitting on the Environmental Justice Partnership board, a nonprofit that addresses East Baltimore’s environmental health issues.
Meanwhile, the activist with the big voice says he draws from his pension check to keep his gig going.
“I’m behind in my mortgage, and my family says I’m crazy for doing what I do,” he says. “But I want to get people motivated to rally and fight for themselves or for others directly affected by the problems.”