Teen-aged Grime Fighters spruce up city parks ... and self-images

Columbus Park on the waterfront finally looks as good as it should. It always did have a commanding view of Boston Harbor. And pricey condominiums have long since replaced the decaying waterfront warehouses that once lined its perimeter. But the place looked like a dump.

''Just awful,'' recalls Robert Horgan, who lives on one side of the park and manages a Marriott Hotel situated on the other side. ''It was embarrassing; people threw trash everywhere.''

No longer. Armed with brooms, shovels, and trash bags, a group of North End teens sporting yellow T-shirts emblazoned ''Grime Fighter'' swept into the park last summer. Broken bottles and discarded paper cups didn't stand a chance.

''It's been fabulous,'' says Mr. Horgan. Repeat visits this summer by the self-styled grime fighters, he adds, have kept the place clean. So clean, in fact, that Horgan wants to see more of them. Many more.

So when Steve Bion-dolillo, the Grime Fighters's fast-talking organizer, recently unveiled his plans for the First National Grime Fighter Olympics, Horgan was there, delightedly plugging the Grime Fighters and announcing that the Marriott would provide lodging, refreshments, and prizes for the contestants. Like the eight teen-agers who swept into the waterfront park last year, all the contestants will be youths in federally funded summer jobs.

''It's the same every time,'' says Mr. Biondolillo. ''We move into a place, clean it up, make an impact - the people love it, business loves it, they support us.''

Among other skills, games on Aug. 23 will determine how fast four people and one broom can sweep a crumpled soda can 100 meters and the speed with which a team can stuff 25 pounds of garbage into a bag. Not the sort of event to attract network coverage, but it's pretty vital in the world of the garbage grabber.

''We've got commitments from four other (cleanup) teams in Boston,'' Biondolillo says. ''There'll be a couple of more teams from Worcester, a team from New York City, we're working on some from Iowa. And the mayor's office is in touch with people in Pittsburgh, Philly, and D.C.''

Why get the kids excited about cleanup patrol - traditionally a bottom-of-the-barrel assignment?

''It's the carrot-and-the-stick approach,'' Biondolillo explains. ''You do your job, stick by your guns, and,'' he lowers his voice confidentially as if he were trying to sell a prospective participant, ''we'll send you to Boston, let you show off your skills. They'll have a good time. It will revolutionize their self-image. It will make them more effective both as summer workers and as citizens.''

The North End Grime Fighters - part summer-jobs program, part volunteer organization, part youth movement - seem to defy easy categorization. The 11 inner-city youths at the core of the Grime Fighters are paid from a $5,000 federal grant through the Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA). At the same time, a cadre of adult volunteers pitches in with the teen-agers, lending moral and logistical support.

Most cities play host to some combination of cleanup organization. For instance, 347 communities in 40 states have some sort of volunteer corps to support their own public works departments as part of the privately funded Keep America Beautiful campaign. In addition, the JPTA program will dispense about $ 45 million this year to employ city teen-agers in summer cleanup jobs. About $ 150,000 of that will wind up in Boston.

Biondolillo intends the Grime Fighter program to spruce up not only city streets and parks, but also self-images. ''These kids got squeezed out of the office jobs uptown,'' he says. ''It's hard to manage them because no one wants to be out sweeping streets in front of their friends in the middle of the summer.''

That's where the T-shirts come in. By organizing the teens under a banner that evokes a comic-book superhero, Biondolillo hopes to instill a sense of pride in the work being accomplished.

''So often in the inner city it's a question of the kids signing out and picking up their paychecks and 'boof,' nothing's been accomplished,'' says Biondolillo, a veteran administrator of summer-jobs programs in New York City.

That is not a charge being leveled at Biondolillo's group. Last year, members raised about $30,000 - some cash, but mostly donated products (brooms, shovels, and other grime-fighting implements) or services from organizations impressed with the group's work. In addition to stuffing 288 bags, 14 barrels, and 10 boxes with North End trash last summer, the Grime Fighters made regular forays outside of their usual stomping grounds to help JPTA cleanup crews in other neighborhoods.

Now, with the summer season more than half over and the group already exceeding last year's harvest, Biondolillo has bigger plans. He wants to see the Grime Fighters, in spirit if not in name, go national. Eventually, he would like to see enthusiastic ranks of Grime Fighters spring up where ever lackluster summer workers now toil.

''Actually they could call themselves anything they want,'' Biondolillo says. He dreams of all the groups converging for a Grime Fighter Olympics each year.

''The only important thing would be for these groups to encourage the kids and let them know that what they're doing is important.

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