I live in a trash heap.
I’m not talking about your everyday litter: the ever-present layer of napkins, plastic bags, wrappers, crushed cans, and bottles that crunch under our feet and tucks into sidewalk corners. I’m talking about the piled high, two-mattresses-and-a-couch, tower-of-tires kind of trash heap.
Where are the city services that prevent or alleviate this sea of garbage? Where is the enforcement of trash dumping rules already in place? My street is small and narrow, one of those two-ways that really should just go one direction. There are nine houses — one abandoned — and three empty patches of grass that dot the landscape. It is on these lots that the culprits seize.
I first moved to Philadelphia in 2009. At the time I lived in Queen Village, a well-off neighborhood mostly insulated from the economic suffering that plagues our city. Back then there were street sweepers, an annoying yet necessary hassle that left me setting my alarm for 6:55 and frantically racing outside to move my car lest I get a ticket when the sweeper trucks rolled in sharply at 7 a.m. From there I lived briefly in South Philly west of Broad, then for a longer time in Olde Kensington, before moving a few blocks north and buying a home in Hartranft, a small pocket of the city east of Temple’s spreading reach, west of burgeoning Fishtown, and just north of the quickly changing landscape of my previous home.
An area populated with mostly Hispanic families, Hartranft is a bustling place. There is a music to it — literally. Come through and you’ll hear everything from hip-hop to reggaeton to traditional Latin tunes pouring from houses and car speakers. Also figuratively: Stroll the aisles of the local grocery and you’ll find Turkish tea, Persian spices, Mexican tortilla, all melding together in a rich cultural song.
But in many ways, it’s a forgotten neighborhood. A literal dumping ground that represents what’s being left behind, as the city continues to develop and change around it.
Despite the city’s renewed efforts to crack down on short-dumping, trash on my block is constant. It is endless. It arrives overnight and piles high. It catches the wind and blows throughout the street. Children play next to it. People scavenge through it.
In the year and a half I’ve lived here, there have been untold numbers of mattresses, entire households’ worth of furniture and belongings, toilets, a boat, a trailer, and even now as I write this, a shelled-out old car, burned to its frame. Behind it, at another small cross-street, the trash is piled so high and so deep that it blocks the road. I have seen the entire contents of a person’s home – all of the worldly possessions left behind in whatever fraught way they had to leave — flipped upside down and discarded unsympathetically into the outdoors.
The rumors say that some of it is local residents in the night, but I don’t believe this. Closer to the truth, others say the trash is carted in by developers from other parts of the city. One developer tells another, a secret chain of whispered-knowledge on exactly where the cameras are, and where they aren’t.
We’ve tried to manage it. Collectively, we take photos, report to 311, write letters, petition our councilmember’s office. Each of these actions requiring time and energy that so many residents simply don’t have. And still, the trash stays. It is a perpetual cycle. Once a lot is cleaned — approximately 90 business days after it is first reported — it is all but guaranteed to be filled again in a matter of days. And it only seems to have worsened; I don’t recall seeking a speck of trash beyond the usual in the first few months of living here.
But now, with the constant development of surrounding Kensington, South Philly, and West Philly, the trash is a force. It’s bigger than we alone can contend. It is simply overwhelming.
What are the solutions? I don’t know. I’ve run out. Both 311 and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez’s office know me. (The councilwoman has been helpful to an extent, but is understandably focused on more serious issues like the opioid epidemic.)
Even punishments don’t seem to be enough. Rooting through the last major dumping turned up evidence of the culprit. A fine was issued, the lot was cleaned, and a week later the neighborhood woke up once again to fresh dumping on the lot.
I’ve contemplated leaving more than once. After a particularly long fraught battle to remove a boat that was left on a lot for months, a dirty, half-shell of a trailer was soon deposited in its place. I became frustrated to the point of tears. No one should have to live like this.
As Philadelphia continues to grow and change, welcoming newcomers and new businesses into its borders, we must remember who is being left behind. It is simply a disgrace that we neglect these neighborhoods, which are everything we seek to be: culturally rich, proud, exuding that specific toughness that comes with calling yourself Philadelphian.
We need regular street sweeping. We need to combat buildups with more frequent trash collection. We need more cameras to catch dumping offenders, real penalties that make people think twice, and better incentives so trash offenders aren’t tempted — how about providing free or inexpensive dumpsters near new development?
We need something. Our city owes it to us. Philadelphia must do better.