‘Filthadelphia’ tries to shed nickname by cleaning streets
PHILADELPHIA – The City of Brotherly Love was once revolutionary when it came to clean streets, gutters and sidewalks. Benjamin Franklin launched one of America’s first street sweeping programs here in the late 1750s. In 1952, the city tied with Memphis, Tennessee, as the nation’s cleanest.
Those distinctions are long gone. Poverty and litter often go hand in hand, and “Filthadelphia” is the nation’s poorest big city.
In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and after mounting grumblings by residents who didn’t want to move their cars, Philadelphia scrapped its residential street sweeping program, leaving it the only city of its size in the country without one.
Now some neighborhoods struggling with litter have decided to take collection into their own hands. Last month, a nonprofit neighborhood group in the city’s Germantown section started rounds of litter collection with its own trash truck. Other neighborhood associations are paying for human street sweepers or professional trash collection companies.
The low-income Germantown neighborhood has a persistent litter problem, in addition to problems with gun violence, blight and, sometimes, a sense of hopelessness.
“This is us stepping up to the plate to be part of the solution, because a lot of this litter isn’t something the city can control,” said Jordan Ferrarini, whose group, Trades for a Difference, bought the Germantown truck. “It’s something being done in the community, and has to do with the psychology of the neighborhood.”
His group hires young people from the neighborhood to work in litter collection and hopes to expand the duties to beautification projects and plantings. The idea is to provide jobs in the neighborhood and to build a sense of community and pride, he said.
City officials see no shame in neighborhood groups buying their own trash trucks to deal with litter problems.
Carlton Williams, streets commissioner, said the Germantown group’s idea isn’t to replace they city’s trash collection efforts, but to complement them.
He’s all for it.
“Litter is a partnership effort,” he said. “That is the key to success, and it’s great that they want to be ambitious. We’re fully supportive.”
Across the city, neighborhoods working class to wealthy have come up with ways to manage street cleanliness.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced in his budget address this month that he’ll reinvest in street sweeping, starting with a pilot program for a handful of neighborhoods this spring.
However, the city still isn’t planning to force residents to move their cars. Instead, it’s testing an approach in which workers with leaf blowers will blow trash away from curbs and from under vehicles ahead of the broom trucks, Williams said.
“It’s hard to find a spot to move your car,” he said. “You can’t just move across the street, and that is difficult challenge in some parts of the city.”
Other densely populated cities like New York manage to persuade their residents to move cars and make street sweeping a priority, though, and Williams said he’s open to talking to New York City officials on how they’ve managed it there.
The mayor created the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet in 2016 to tackle the problem, with a goal of becoming 90 percent zero waste and litter-free by 2035. Litter and Illegal dumping are among its top priorities.
“It is hard to tell people not to litter when they see people coming into their neighborhood and dumping truckloads of construction debris,” said director Nic Esposito.
The city has installed cameras in areas vulnerable to dumping, intended to help catch offenders and prosecute them. But Esposito said he knows the city can’t arrest its way out of the problem, so among new regulations would be a requirement for all new construction or demolition projects to list their waste hauler before permits are issued.
Politicians have tried things over the years. Former Mayor Michael Nutter launched a citywide spring cleanup in 2007. The 12th annual event happens April 6.
Experts say efforts like the nonprofit group’s trash truck can be a successful strategy to combat litter and to change a neighborhood’s mindset.
“Nothing will ever succeed like grassroots; that is the best thing for every city,” said Steven Stein, who runs a litter research company called Environmental Resources Planning, which documents the effects of litter and illegal dumping.
“To people who think this is a lost cause, it’s not,” he said. “It’s doable as people make up their minds that they want it to be.”