Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Trying to Clean Up New York

Albert Ridley, a worker in the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able street cleaning program, at 2nd Avenue and 86th Street.

Related in Community Gazettes:

Vacant Lots Still Plague the Lower East Side
(District 2)
Community Pride Helps Keep Riverdale Clean
(District 11)
Kew Gardens Hills: A Campaign to Clean Up Main Street
(District 24)
East New York: Cleaner But Not Clean Enough
(District 42)

Five days a week, Albert Ridley and Jesus Negron appear on the Upper East Side at 7 a.m. to sweep streets, empty litter baskets and scrape illegal leaflets off lampposts. It isn't easy: The two men must cope with illegally parked cars that block their brooms, bags of dog poop that have not been sealed, and news vendors who dump piles of heavy newspapers into litter baskets instead of bundling them. But, they say, their work is appreciated. "People stop you and thank you for keeping the area clean," Ridley says.

Ridley and Negron, who both served time in jail, participate in the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able for homeless people and former convicts. It is part of the patchwork of government and private programs that try to keep New York clean.

Despite such efforts, New York does not seem to have shaken its long-time reputation for being filthy: In a poll in 2002, almost half the visitors to New York (and more than half of New Yorkers themselves) said that the city's streets were dirty.

This is not the way it has to be in a big city.

"The biggest difference between New York and Paris is the fact that Paris is clean," David Garrard Lowe wrote in City Journal in 1996. Every morning, Parisian merchants hose sidewalks, and city machines spray streets and remove litter from under parked cars.

"The fact that Paris is clean gives Parisians a sense that things are not falling apart," said Lowe, "that society is not doomed, that there is order in the universe and municipal government."

New York City has struggled over the past decades to overcome its reputation. Now, says the Bloomberg administration, it has largely succeeded. A recent city survey (in pdf format) found 89 percent of city streets "acceptably clean" -- a higher percentage than at any time since the city began keeping records 30 years ago.

But the cleanliness of the city remains a heated political issue, as a recent furor over debris on city beaches makes clear. Critics doubt whether the city really is as clean as the administration claims.

And they question whether the city can claim responsibility for any improvement there has been. Private groups, such as neighborhood and civic organizations, play an increasing role in sanitation, picking up trash, bagging garbage, and cleaning up graffiti (see related stories on Kew Gardens Hills and Riverdale.) Does the city rely too much on such groups? Or should it turn even more over to private agencies?


On one fact everybody can agree: The city is certainly cleaner than it was for much of its history. That is not difficult. For centuries the filth of New York streets was legendary, over-the-top, deadly. Efforts to clean it up had little effect, starting with the law banning the disposal of animal carcasses and other garbage in city streets in 1657. In the 19th century, residents dumped their garbage directly onto the street, attracting foraging dogs and pigs. By the end of the century, some 2.5 million pounds of manure fell in city streets every day, according to one estimate.

"Before 1895 the streets were almost universally in a filthy state," wrote George Waring, the man credited with improving the situation. "Rubbish of all kinds, garbage, and ashes lay neglected in the streets, and in the hot weather the city stank with the emanations of putrefying organic matter. It was not always possible to see the pavement, because of the dirt that covered it."

The city established the Department of Sanitation in 1881, but it remained mired in corruption. The situation came to a head when the blizzard of 1888 dumped 21 inches of snow on the city. Snow removal was haphazard at best, and once the snow melted, the city still had to take care of the garbage, including several hundred animal carcasses.

Several years later, Waring was named commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning. He organized the department as though it was an army, cracked down on patronage and gave street sweepers white uniforms, leading to the nickname "whitewings." Two years later Waring would boast: "New York is now thoroughly clean in every part. . . ." "Clean streets means much more than the casual observer is apt to think. It has justly been said that 'cleanliness is catching,'and clean streets are leading to clean hallways and stair cases and cleaner living-rooms."

But as New Yorkers know, the city had not won the battle. Since the mayor's office began issuing ratings on street cleanliness in 1975, the results have fluctuated widely. In 1980, only 53 percent of the streets were considered "acceptably clean." Ratings improved steadily until they reached the low 70s in 1986 and remained there until the late 1990s.

But that was not clean enough. Garbage-strewn vacant lots and filthy streets blighted many neighborhoods. "New York is surely the filthiest of any major American city, the only one that does not have a single faultlessly kept area under city control," Julia Vitullo Martin wrote in City Journal in 1993.

But by the end of the decade, things had improved. Many areas seemed cleaner, and the rating rose to above 80 percent, where it remains today.


To reach its findings on street cleanliness, the mayor's office of operations rates selected streets and sidewalks on a scale (in pdf format) from 1.0 (no litter) to 3.0 (litter is highly concentrated). But the method is not totally scientific, giving the mayor's political opponents the opportunity to question the findings.

The results of the most recent report card "seem like Alice in Wonderland," Councilmember Christine Quinn, whose district includes Greenwich Village and Chelsea, told the New York Post. "The number one complaint I hear -- I'm not exaggerating it -- at every block association meeting is dirty streets and litter."

This summer's biggest clash over cleanliness came not over streets but beaches, the responsibility of the parks department. In early August, the City Council issued a report stating, "New York City beachgoers who expect sun, surf and sand might also find condoms, hypodermic needles, food wrappers and other garbage littering both shore and sea." To bolster the claims about dirty beaches, the report featured photos including one of what appeared to be a dead rat, covered in sand, on Staten Island's South Beach.

Similarly parks advocates often point to dirty parks -- from simple litter to larger amounts of garbage dumped in remote areas.

Disputes arise as well over how to clean the city. The mayor and some council members have disagreed over sanitation tickets -- fines issued to businesses and homeowners that do not keep their property clean. Many who receive the tickets say they are penalized for violations that are not their fault -- Big Mac packaging on their front lawn dropped by customers from a nearby McDonald's, say. Earlier this year, City Council unanimously passed a bill that would allow the city to issue fines only during two specified hours, so homeowners would not face fines for litter dumped on their property while they were at work. Bloomberg vetoed the bill, but the council overrode the veto.

To combat the dumping in vacant lots of garbage, furniture, appliances -- even cars -- the city has increased the fines, and offered rewards for turning in people who are repeat offenders.


The primary responsibility for keeping New York clean lies with the Department of Sanitation, which has a budget of about $1.5 billion. The parks department cleans city parks and beaches, with the help of private parks groups and hundreds of volunteers.

But in many neighborhoods, residents complain that these efforts fall short (see related story on the Lower East Side). And so, a number of City Council members use their discretionary funds to fund clean-up efforts.

Last year, James Gennaro spent $35,000 for trash baskets in his district. Several council members, including Gennaro, have hired Ready, Willing and Able to clean the street. The program hires homeless people and former convicts for the job, paying them $5.50 or $6.50 an hour (tax free).

"It's a two-sided page," explained Craig Trotta, director of work and training for the fund. The neighborhood, he said, gets cleaner streets, while the workers get jobs that can help set them on a path to a a job and a place to live.

And then there are individuals who wage a war against litter. In the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn, a long-time resident picks up garbage in her community. "I do it because I love the neighborhood," she said, adding that the area's small size makes it possible for her to have a real effect. "It's not a Herculean task," she said.

A combination of efforts go toward keeping a neighborhood clean, said Fred Arcaro of Community Board 6 on the East Side of Manhattan, an area whose streets have been rated the city's cleanest. The neighborhood hires the Doe Fund to help. Community associations keep pressure on businesses to clean up. "You have a civic culture here to keep the sidewalks clean," Acaro said.

A public-private mix also removes graffiti. While the city has an Anti-Graffiti Task Force that has removed more than 16.3 million square feet of graffiti since July 2002, community groups such as the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol fight the paint scrawls in their own communities.

The Adopt a Highway Program took on the daunting task of keeping highways clean in the 1990s. Run by the city Department of Transportation, businesses, organizations or individuals commit to keep a stretch of highway clean -- either by caring for it themselves or hiring a maintenance firm to do it.

Business Improvement Districts also take up some of the burden. Businesses in a specified area pay an additional tax, the revenues from which go to improving the area -- which often means street cleaning, as well as better lights and holiday decorations.

Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute has hailed the Business Improvement Districts as "one of the most important developments in local governance in the last two decades." In 1996, she credited them with "considerable responsibility for turning around once squalid neighborhoods -- from Times Square to East Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- and making them safe and attractive for shoppers and pedestrians."

And some call for a greater private role in sanitation. The city instituted private garbage collection for businesses in the mid 1950s. In the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani considered having private companies compete with the city to collect residential garbage. The plan lost steam when sanitation workers agreed to productivity measures. But the idea still appeals to some people, particularly political conservatives.

But some critics say government, not businesses or volunteers, should clean the city. Councilmember Eric Gioa, who hired the Doe Fund for parts of Woodside,Queens, told Newsday, "It's unfortunate we have to rely on a private organization to clean up our streets because cleaner streets should be a top priority of government."

The New York City Audubon Society has reservations as well. "There is a very unsettling trend in this city where city and federal government agencies have decided to abandon their responsibility to keep their facilities free of litter and dumping," the group's newsletter said.


One way to have less garbage to pick up is to produce less of it in the first place. As evidence, advocates point to the bottle bill, which set a mandatory deposit on beer and soda containers. According to one estimate, the measure has reduced litter in the state by 70 percent. A bill introduced in the state legislature seeks to expand the law to include containers for bottled water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks -- beverages that barely existed when the law was first passed in 1982.

The New York WasteLess Campaign offers tips to help individuals, businesses and government cut down on garbage that can turn up as street litter. These include simple steps such as buying products with less packaging and bringing lunch in reusable containers.

Streets and lots are dirty largely because people make them that way. For some, littering reflects self-interest. People and businesses improperly dump garbage in a public place because they don't want to pay to dispose of it properly.

But for some litterers, it is not that simple. Psychologists have researched why some people remain impervious to entreaties, dirty looks and common sense and continue to drop scraps on the sidewalk and dump everything from coffee cups to old sofas in vacant lots.

A 1980 study concluded that people are more likely to litter on dirty streets than clean ones. People also tend to litter when they feel no sense of identity with an area (see related story on East New York). And, concluded Thomas Herblein, a sociology professor, "litterers are people who are less likely to feel personally responsible for their action. And they are less likely to be aware of negative personal consequences that litter hurts others."

Some officials have set out to change those attitudes. Last year, Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5 in Queens (which includes Middle Village and Glendale), launched a campaign to highlight the role of the public in improving the cities. "So often," he wrote in a mailing, "the problems that our city has to solve are mainly due to people behaving badly."

Similarly, James Vacca, district manager of Community Board 10 in the eastern Bronx, wants to affect his neighbors' behavior. "I don't want people to think that because we are the Bronx, we are any different from Chappaqua," he told the New York Times. "We are people who have standards."

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