Gotham Gazette

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Littering On Staten Island

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 12.

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 allotment.

"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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