Philadelphia has spent decades bearing the nickname “Filthadelphia.” In the winter, the city earns it.
Longtime Sharswood resident Talmadge Belo remembers when his street — the 2400 block of Sharswood — was one of the brightest and best in the city.
There’s a physical reminder, a glass plaque awarded by the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee for “cleanest block” in 1996, on a shelf in his cozy living room among family photos and piles of records. The co-president of the Sharswood/Brewerytown Community Civic Association and former Philadelphia Housing Authority and Philadelphia Schools employee has lived here for nearly 50 years with his wife, Sheila, who serves as its block captain.
And yet now, year-round but especially in the dark, cold Philly winters, Belo can name the corners that attract trash.
“On 26th and Jefferson, regardless of our constant efforts to keep it clean, it’s there,” he said, “Or on 21st and College Avenue there’s just this constant pile-up of trash.”
If he or his neighbors sees a bag or a small pile, they try to get rid of it immediately, or more will appear.
“Trash attracts trash.”
While he doesn’t like it, Belo admits Philadelphia has a trash problem.
Seasonal Collection Disorder
Despite government programs and city-wide trash clean-up days, Philadelphia still struggles to keep its streets clean. When temperatures drop and nobody wants to be outside, the task becomes even harder.
Carlton Williams, newly appointed Commissioner of the Streets Department, confirmed that one of the biggest obstacles for those who want to maintain clean streets in the winter is weather.
“The collection process [of trash] remains the same, however inclement weather conditions are generally more challenging,” Williams said, explaining that snow or ice can slow down collection, or in extreme cases, back up collection for weeks. Trash left out often gets blown away, or bags are broken, scattering trash into places sanitation workers can’t reach, a problem that’s unique to crowded city streets.
Williams said it helps to know which holiday waste, like wrapping paper and cardboard gift boxes, are recyclable.
Put a lid on it
There are things Philadelphians can do to help, though, he said. Some are as simple as waiting to put trash outside until the morning if it’s going to snow, especially if forecasts show more than four inches of snow.
In that case, Keisha McCarty-Skelton of the Streets Department said, many sanitation crews will be plowing and salting. Collection rescheduling and delays are announced on the Street Department’s Twitter account, its website, Philly 311 and through phone calls to residents. The holiday collection schedule for the entire year is posted online.
On days where there’s snow, but not enough to redirect workers, trucks might still have to drive slower, depending on the condition of roads.
Because sanitation crews collect up to 15 tons each on pick-up days, McCarty-Skelton said, observing the city’s 40-pound trash bag limit is extra important to keep bags from exploding in the street. Lighter bags should be weighed down by heavier items, so they don’t blow away, she said.
Other methods of keeping the streets clean during the winter aren’t as simple.
Clean up the block
Thomas Conway, the deputy managing director of the city’s department of Community Life Improvement Program, tries to teach neighborhoods that trash is a community problem, not just an eyesore.
CLIP lends supplies to groups or individuals who want to organize cleanups, and teaches how to maintain them.
Conway acknowledged that abolishing the city’s filthy nickname is hard, especially in colder temperatures.
“You see a lot of people [using CLIP services] in the spring and summer and early fall, if it’s warm,” he said. “But then it dies down in the winter.”
Each year, the mayor, along with the Streets Department, leads the Philly Spring Cleanup, when hundreds of people scour the city’s streets for trash. The city sponsors other clean-up days throughout the year, but they’re all in warmer months. The rest of the year, Conway said, it’s harder to motivate people.
Last year, out of the 575 individuals and organizations across the city who picked up materials from the CLIP warehouse in Huntington Park, only 25 used the program in January and only 16 did so in February. CLIP is promoted on the department’s website and on Twitter, but it ultimately comes down to citizens who are motivated to clean.
The top ZIP codes utilizing the CLIP cleanups are in North Philadelphia neighborhoods like Hunting Park, Fairhill, Tioga and North Central.
The motivation, he said, is simple — people want to live in a clean environment. But it can be hard to keep people accountable right after the streets have been cleaned.
“There’s the idea that some areas have more trash than others,” he said. “But it’s more like there are some people that are more engaged than others.”
Belo agreed that trash reflects its community. He’s seen the mentality in his neighborhood change when it comes to litter. When most every home was owned instead of rented, he said, people would yell out their windows if they saw someone litter.
“We wouldn’t let you get away with that,” Belo said. “There was a real investment in the neighborhood.”
Over time, as the residents changed, so did the scenery. But Belo has always tried his hardest to keep Sharswood tidy.
While the dark and bleak season is making it harder to keep up with his cleaning routines, Belo said he can see the light at the end of the tunnel, if it means gaining the respect and pride that comes with a beautiful community.
“I had a kid ask me one time, ‘Why are you always cleaning up someone else’s mess?’” He says. “And I told him, ‘This is all our mess. This is my neighborhood just like it’s yours.’ The kid had a hard time wrapping his mind around that.”