… and The Toll On Its Most Vulnerable Residents
During a 2018 BET Awards’ performance of his single “Stay Woke” in Los Angeles, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s goal was to transform the stage into South Philly.
What stood out was the trash. Beyond the eerily accurate depiction of urban living was the very visible images of trash strewn about. Outsiders were exposed to a vision of what many Philadelphians have experienced throughout their entire lives: the City of Brotherly Love’s definitive trash problem.
Filthadelphia — an unflattering nickname the city has grown to deal with (you can even buy a t-shirt with Philthy on the front). Some longtime natives and transplants admit to ecoWURD that while the streets and parks aren’t as wrecked as in times past, there is quite a long way to go. Certainly, in the relatively tony areas of Society Hill or Rittenhouse Square, there is little evidence of Philly’s filthy legacy as bustling eateries and bars cater to patrons who can afford five-dollar lattes and a night out on the town. But where the city’s poor dwell, specifically predominantly Black neighborhoods, there’s a very different reality.
A trip up North Broad Street is like a virtual tour of one of Philly’s most pressing and visible environmental hazards – trash, and lots of it. For Philly natives, this issue has persisted for decades. So just what is the cost of tackling one of the city’s top environmental issues? And is it enough?
In Mayor Jim Kenney’s FY 2019 budget, $143 million of the proposed $4.6 billion budget will be allotted for the departments of streets and sanitation. In comparison, the police department gets $709 million, the prison department $256 million, public health/behavioral health $171 million, and parks and recreation will see $66 million.
What you won’t see in the proposed budget is what exactly that $143 million does, or how much is dedicated to trash elimination, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Through its information-rich Philadelphia Streets website, the city touts that over 6,000 blocks were cleaned by the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC). In existence for over 70 years and claiming 90,000 volunteers working on 9,000 clean-up events yearly, PMBC acts as a division of Philadelphia Streets. This kind of manpower is supposed to aid the “Block Captains” who lead beautification efforts by way of Philadelphia Streets. Yet, it’s clear from the prevalence of trash throughout Philadelphia, these efforts have not materialized in certain areas where the residential palette skews towards darker hues.
JUST TAKE A STROLL THROUGH THE TRASH
A visit to a local Brewerytown coffee shop sparks conversation with its owner, a West Philly native who would only identify himself to ecoWURD as “Mo.”
Mo loves talking about the city’s rustic charm. But, even he can’t deny it. Once you look past the slowly-gentrifying Brewerytown with all the classic Philly urban fixtures – narrow streets, aging stores and tough-looking block boys manning corners – the trash element dominates.
“Not even a decade ago,” Mo tells ecoWURD, “the area felt like a war zone.” Today, rapid change is afoot. An anonymous patron inside the coffee shop who overheard Mo, interjected gruffly that “this city doesn’t care about the trash or the damn environment, they just want those White boys’ money and an excuse to jack up the rent!”
SO: WHO GETS THE PHILLY SPIT-SHINE?
A 2016 YouTube video uploaded by Lenny King is offered without a caption. But it features what we can safely assume is King speaking off camera as he aims his smartphone on a trash crew servicing the alleyway of his home. To King, the workers showed little orderly effort and tossed about his neighborhoods’ trash receptacles like the garbage they’re supposed to contain.
King is overheard saying “they don’t do this in White neighborhoods, why they do their own people like that?” — implying that the workers were Black. The voice is weary with frustration. Imagine the weekly reminder that your neighborhood’s cleanliness is not a city priority, a city where you pay taxes and expect a level of service your dollars presumably supplement in some way? Imagine further if you’re a person who feels part of this neglect is due to the fact that you’re Black?
City trash workers haven’t shown much care for years: YouTube user Josh uploaded a surveillance camera video from 2013 that shows a worker not even putting minimal effort to pull a bag out the can and just tosses the whole thing into the back of a garbage truck. Without context and more information, it’s difficult to assess whether the can may have been damaged. But city trash workers seem to have robbed a homeowner’s opportunity to contribute less to the trash pile up.
THE CITY’S SMELLY NUMBERS GAME
Perhaps this is just a game of numbers.
The Streets Department says it hauls 1.5 million tons of residential and commercial waste per year, carefully noting that there is a severe environmental impact by way of the towering landfills. The department also takes pains to mention that the amount of waste could be curbed by way of methods that it lays out via its CLEAN PHL initiative and other related recycling and reuse practices. CLEAN PHL’s tagline — “A Litter-Free City Starts With You” — feels like an uncomfortable challenge and not an invitation to change. It puts the onus strictly on individual residents.
In its most recent Philadelphia Resident Survey Report from 2016-2017, the city mailed out survey questions to an address-based sample of 4,500 households across the city. Only 15 percent were returned due to issues such as vacant homes and other concerns. In the surveys that were returned, the city was proud to mention that 66 percent of respondents approve of trash collection efforts but were still dissatisfied with the Streets Department overall.
Of that number, Whites were replying at twice the rate of Black/African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Given the small sample of responses collected and the mere fact you can stumble into illegal dumping grounds all over North and Southwest Philly, it implies that available data don’t reflect the real-life concerns of underserved communities.
THE SHORT-DUMPING PLAGUE
Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director, sounds frustrated. As he talks with ecoWURD, he explains that even though city officials recognize the enormity of Philly’s trash problem, the challenges are enormous. “We’re working as quickly as possible, but the city can’t perform block-to-block miracles,” says Eposito.
“Illegal dumping has to stop. It’s more than just a quality of life issue, it’s a criminal issue,” said Esposito, his tone rising. “When we talk to more affluent people in the city, they’re not even sure what short-dumping is. But it is a danger to children. It’s despicable.”
City Hall realizes that Kensington, Strawberry Mansion and other regions are suffering from not only residents’ lax attitude toward waste management, but the rampant plague of so-called “short dumping.” Nearly a quarter of all field requests from Philly’s 311 line are for responses to illegal dumps and vacant lot clean-ups – and most of those are heavily concentrated in the North and Southwest areas of the city, according to analysis reported by WHYY’s PlanPhilly.
When asked if he thought the city’s information-rich website is the right delivery tool for missions like Zero Waste 2035 – and an effective way to level the information-gathering playing field between the city’s have and have nots – Esposito said that “CLEAN PHL was designed as a means to simplify the city’s pathways of information.”
Instead, it must follow protocols in place while collecting the data needed to one day do just that when all services are realigned. Esposito pointed to the newly announced Neighborhood Litter Plan: Southwest Philadelphia and efforts such as the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee Block Captain Network, which is largely organized by Black residents.
But, for now, city officials seem better prepared to point out data than illustrating a clear path to cleaner neighborhoods, particularly those where Black residents are concentrated.
MORE THAN PHILLY PRIDE
CLEAN PHL has a lot of information tools offering all sorts of data on trash: like its litter index and a carefully outlined plan to bring down the city’s trash problem by 2035. What begs examination is how these programs are mapped out and delivered to communities of color that are suffering higher instances of lax trash collection and litter.
Enter Ogbonna Hagins, a passionate environmentalist who, for the past decade, has attempted to highlight city trash issues. In some ways, Hagins is a one-man recycling crew who has managed to make a business out of digging in trash to remove items that can be refurbished, reused, and, more than often, resold.
“For about 15 years, North Philly has been so bad with the trash that a clothing brand embraced it under the ‘North Philthy” brand and I’m sure it had spinoffs,” Hagins complains. “That right there is a part of it.”
The trash is more than a mere eyesore for Hagins. He views Philadelphia’s trash issue as a responsibility of its Black community and their approach to the environment and materialism. In short, Hagins believes it’s an unfortunate consequence of residents’ misdirected consumerism mentality and that it has to change before the filth goes away.
Hagins’ observations of the city’s impoverished districts and neighborhoods are well-documented with profiles in the Philadelphia Tribune and coverage of his work by Fox 29. Hagins isn’t some grizzled relic of the free-love sixties injecting a new-age version of hippy sensibilities to the masses. What sets off the environmentalist in action is wastefulness, recklessness, and blatant disregard. He believes mindset is a big issue: Black Philly isn’t seeing its environment as a priority. Many residents are too saddled with poverty to do so, struggling to find jobs and opportunity to leave the very thing that surrounds them daily.
“North Philly is just dirty, man. And I think part of it is that people are accepting and comfortable with the trash,” Hagins explains. “And the city, I think, has done the same stepping over the trash just like the people are.”
Hagins pivoted into talking about the illegal dumping, particularly under bridgeways, saying the practice has been in effect for the past three to four decades. What Hagins strongly believes is that Philly knows that it’s an issue, as backed by Esposito’s assessment, but that City Council leaders are as complicit in Philly’s filth as are the offending parties who dump and litter.
“Every religion just about has some form of the saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ and many of the elected officials profess to be of a certain religion. But term after the term, these people are continually elected back into office and nothing changes,” adds Hagins.
“These individuals don’t promote the needs of their constituency, they’re largely Afro-American, and yet they run the affairs of the poorest Black city in the country,” Hagins continues “It’s going to take leadership applying better practices, use what existing city services to better effect, and the city departments that specifically work on this issue need to do more, but all out in the open.”
For example, the Streets Department only sends out trash crews once per week, aggravating the lives of families who live in multi-tier homes or residences. In Hagins’ view, that makes the block, already struggling with litter, even dirtier. So, could something like Zero Waste 2035 work? “If the city starts in North Philly and works its way to other neighborhoods, maybe it has a chance.”
To Hagins and others, cleaning Philly must be a coordinated effort between city leadership and its residents. It can’t just be about legislation or lifestyle. It means holding elected officials accountable for creating safe, clean streets for all communities — not just the affluent ones — while encouraging strategies that every resident, particularly in more distressed areas of the city, can embrace,implement, and ultimately replicate across all neighborhoods.