How a Forgotten Bit of Infrastructure Became a Symbol of Civic Pride
by Casey Cep
Published April 10 in The New Yorker
Excerpt: In the last few weeks of 2020, as another coronavirus surge was putting a stop to parties, shuttering businesses, and rendering work and school and most of social life remote, the artist Juliet Ames spied a salt box at West Thirty-sixth Street and Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, situated between Café Hon and Holy Frijoles, near a restaurant called Frazier’s on the Avenue. Salt boxes are, or have become, a Baltimore specialty. Nine hundred or so of these bespoke wooden bins—about as wide as a refrigerator, as tall as a toddler, as yellow as a rubber ducky—are stationed strategically throughout the city, mostly on streets too narrow or hills too steep for plows. For decades, they were an unremarkable part of Baltimore’s remarkable winter-weather program, which, on any given snow day, might see some three hundred personnel mobilized during each shift.
Although Baltimore averages only twenty inches of snow a year—about sixty inches less than Anchorage and a hundred less than Syracuse—the city still goes through nearly twenty thousand tons of salt every winter season, a small portion of which is distributed via the boxes, which have hinged lids for easy access, but no shovels or scoops. They are self-serve, though there’s some confusion about this: until a few years ago, most of the attention the boxes attracted in a given season amounted to a collective head scratch about what exactly they were for and who was actually allowed to use them. “Salt boxes,” a typical community message-board post read. “What gives?”