Starting around April 15th of each year – Tax Day – the iconic yellow Baltimore saltboxes slowly start disappearing from street corners and sidewalks, leaving only a patch of dead grass or discolored square on the concrete. Mind you, not all of them leave us, but chances are, you’ll start noticing a little less OSHA yellow in your life as winter gives way to spring. That is unless you happen to find yourself on the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway at the Baltimore Department of Transportation Maintenance Division – the summer home of the Baltimore Saltbox.
The process goes like this: Maintenance crew supervisors oversee one or several of the four DOT districts. When saltboxes need to be removed, the supervisor provides a crew with a list of box addresses by intersection or cross-street in a district to be removed. This may be part of the seasonal cycle of pulling the boxes or it may be due to a buildup of requests through 311 or complaints to a city councilperson. Saltboxes suffer any number of abuses and misuses – car accidents, vandalism, and above all else, being used as a trashcan or storage. Time and the elements also take their toll.
2020 was particularly bad for the saltboxes as COVID-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.The same workers that mow the parks and do landscaping pick up the boxes, so the saltboxes stayed baking in the sun while the skeleton crews did their best to keep Baltimore public spaces looking good. The mixture of salt and sand solidified in many boxes, leaving small boulders lodged inside that need to be removed.
Finding the saltboxes on a list for pickup isn’t always easy. Like any other piece of moveable public property, the boxes disappear or migrate to other locations. One supervisor told me about a woman who claimed one as her own, chaining it to her fence and installing a padlock. Once a saltbox is found, it’s emptied. Trash removed and bagged up. Leftover salt is dumped out and shoveled into the truck to make the box lift lighter, if possible. It’s a two-person job, the classic lift-with-your-legs activity.
The collected boxes are returned to 6400 Pulaski Highway and fall into three categories that roughly translate to:
- Total loss: this is no longer a functioning box and will be crossing the Rainbow Bridge
- Needs repair: this box has good bones, but need some maintenance team attention
- Ready for storage: this box lives to serve another season and can go into storage
Saltbox storage is a little like the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the government warehouse space was divided among a mid-sized, rectangle building and several shipping containers and trailers. Maximizing use to the space is key here, and since nobody needs to access a particular box, they’re all placed on their sides and stacked in rows to the ceiling, feet facing out. The math works like this in the storage building: Length: 15 boxes. Height: 4 boxes, Width: 10 boxes. Equals: 600 saltboxes in the main storage building and rest in shipping containers, which includes the retrieved boxes, newly built boxes to replace the ones lost throughout the year.
Around November 15th, the boxes end their slumber and return to the streets of Baltimore to serve another year.