Â Given the united political disdain Staten Islanders once reserved for
the Fresh Kills Landfill , you would think there might be a similar,
collective antipathy for litter, blight, and illegal dumping.
Not entirely. A trip down Victory Boulevard, Forest Avenue or any one of a
dozen major thoroughfares reveals the sad truth: Staten Islanders can
be just as messy, if not messier, than their crowded counterparts
across the harbor.
"You see it every day," grumbles Councilmember James Oddo. "Whether it's somebody rolling down the
window and throwing out the cigarette butt or dropping trash on the
sidewalk, people do it without thinking."
Population growth has only added to the problem. According to the U.S.
Census, Staten Island grew from 380,000 residents in 1990 to 445,000 in
2000, a 17 percent growth rate -- higher than any other borough in the
city or any other county in the state.
Though bigger than most U.S. cities, the Staten Island response to
pervasive trash remains quaintly small-town in nature. Each spring, the
Staten Island Advance, the borough's lone daily newspaper, conducts a series
of "trashbuster" volunteer pickup gatherings. Meanwhile, the Staten
Island Source, a free weekly distributed to ferry riders, has opted for
a more Puritan tactic: Shaming politicians and property owners. Since
the beginning of the year, the weekly has been publishing photos
and addresses of the island's dirtiest lots and sidewalks under a bold
"Fix It!" headline.
"We've been getting about three or four [photo] submissions a week,"
says publisher Alan Bauer.
The outrage has reached the ears of local politicians such as Borough
President James Molinaro. On April 21, Molinaro issued a "Dirty
Dozen" list of targeted trouble spots around the island. Within days,
the list had grown to 28 sites as residents phoned in their own
candidates. Using both a newly purchased street sweeper and a crew of
hired inmates from the local Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, the
borough president's office reported full cleanup of the 28 sites on May
When it comes to keeping this cleanup going through the summer,
Molinaro says his office has no choice but to scale things back. "We
don't have the money," Molinaro says, succinctly. "We can focus on the
boardwalks and a few parks during the summer, but that's it."
One year-round remedy employed in other corners of the city, the
business improvement district, has been slow to catch on in Staten
Island. New York City currently boasts 46 such districts located
in every borough but Staten Island.
One person hoping to change that is Susan Meeker, executive director of
the West Brighton Local Development Corporation. Her group has
submitted an application with the city Department of Planning and hopes
to have the project up and running in the autumn.
"There's still time for us to get smacked on the nose," says Meeker.
"But we're further along than any other group on Staten Island.
In selling local merchants and representatives on the business
improvement district concept, Meeker has had to step gingerly around
the dreaded "t" word: taxes. Although West Brighton falls within the
generally liberal-voting 49th council district on Staten Island's north
shore, its businesses tend to be less prosperous than those in the more
conservative-voting, southern sections of the island. To pay for
supplemental cleanup and beautification costs, business owners pay a
percentage-based surcharge on their annual property tax assessment. To
keep the district within the comfort zone of local merchants, Meeker is
proposing a minimum assessment of $350 per year.
Similar attempts to form a business improvement district in St. George,
the island's most heavily trafficked neighborhood, have foundered on
the tax issue. "There's too many state and federal buildings," says
Molinaro. "The Library, court system, D.A. building: none of those are
on the tax roll, so we didn't have enough businesses to pay for it."
As for illegal dumping, a problem that tends to affect the borough's
less-developed portions, Oddo, whose district includes much of the
Greenbelt park system in the middle portion of the island, is seeking
to patch up the borough's historically dysfunctional relationship with
the Department of Sanitation.
Though opposed to anything that would reopen Fresh Kills Landfill, Oddo
says he has lobbied Sanitation officials to reopen its drop-off
facility for bulk waste. Currently, the department accepts drop offs
only for hazardous items such as used car batteries at its Special
Waste Disposal site on Staten Island's Muldoon Ave. Officially, city
residents are entitled to six bulk items per curbside pickup. Judging
by the number of rusted dishwashers and sinks located around the
island's western side, not all residents are living within this
"I know the [household dump] facility costs money, but the amount of
money they're saving is being eaten up by the amount of locations they
now have to go out and clean," Oddo says.
Oddo has also invited Sanitation Department representatives to
participate in the recently reconvened Midland Beach Task Force. First
launched in the mid 1990s by former Councilmember John Fusco, the task
force has performed three monthly tours through Midland Beach, a
neighborhood beset by derelict lots and homes, since March.
During the latest sweep, representatives from the Department of
Sanitation and Fire Department issued more than 30 citations for
illegal dumping and improperly-stored hazardous materials. The next
sweep is scheduled for mid-June.
Such efforts, while helpful, have only driven home the primary,
underlying cause of Staten Island's mounting trash problem -- Staten
Islanders. Like most virtues, litter cleanup begins at home, Oddo says.
Until residents find a way to turn outrage into sustainable,
behavior-changing action, sweeps, cleanup campaigns and other political
remedies will provide little more than a short-term remedy for what is
already shaping up to be a long-term problem.
"Staten Islanders love to point the finger at the city and other
boroughs, saying 'We took your trash for 50 years. We're the forgotten
borough,'" says Oddo. "But the litter problem we have was created and
is created daily by Staten Islanders. This isn't people flying in from
Pluto or driving in from Brooklyn and dumping on our streets. It's
people from Staten Island. We need to look ourselves in the mirror and
admit it: We're the ones doing this."
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