The 2000 block of South Watts Street is less than a minute walk to the shops and dining on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. If you were to grab dinner and dessert at, say, Le Virtù and D’Emilio’s and then pop by South Watts, you’d see couples walking their dogs, children playing in the street, parents sitting on stoops, and… dumpsters overflowing with trash.
The block butts up against the backs of a few major stores on South Broad Street, including Rainbow, Snipes, Popeyes, and RiteAid. Unfortunately for their neighbors, the stores place their dumpsters out in the open along the sidewalk across from their homes, allowing trash to pile up and attracting unsavory activity.
MORE ON PHILLY’S TRASH WOES
As the residents make clear with photographic and video proof on the website they’ve created, some people experiencing homelessness use their block as a bathroom, with the dumpsters as cover. Some have started buying, selling, and using heroin there. Two people from outside the block were even seen having sex in the middle of the day next to the dumpsters.
As they put it on their website: “The problems that plague Broad and Snyder cannot be completely shielded from 2000 S. Watts, but that isn’t an excuse for businesses to roll out the welcome mat for those problems to bleed onto our block by completely disregarding the renters and homeowners that are their neighbors.”
A couple months ago, one fed-up resident asked the stores to clean up, which led to a short-lived improvement. But the dumpsters, and the piles of trash soon returned. And despite several calls to the business managers, the City’s 311 hotline, city officials and Councilmember Mark Squilla, the dumpsters remain. What’s more, as residents discovered, they are illegal.
“We got a Covid vaccine in nine months,” one exasperated resident says. “The city fought a revolution and declared independence. I think we can figure out trash.” But think again. When added to the trash pickup delays plaguing the City, the dumpsters on South Watts make for a smelly street: “Our street is wall to wall trash.”
“The problems that plague Broad and Snyder cannot be completely shielded from 2000 S. Watts, but that isn’t an excuse for businesses to roll out the welcome mat for those problems to bleed onto our block by completely disregarding the renters and homeowners that are their neighbors.”
As any Philadelphian can attest, trash is a constant aggravation in the city. It overflows from bins, piles up on sidewalks while collection is delayed sometimes for days, makes its way to sewer grates. It adds a stench to even the most tree-lined blocks of Center City. Mayor Kenney, despite a campaign promise to restart regular street cleaning, has chosen to roll the efforts out gradually—and his administration has claimed everything from home renovations to heavy rain to excuse the slow pick up.
But for residents on South Watts, the issue has taken on an almost surreal dimension: Not only are they surrounded by industrial trash and disturbing behavior, their efforts to get the City to pay attention have, until recently, fallen on deaf ears. Renters have moved away, but homeowners are stuck.
Steps residents took to get the businesses and the City to do something about the mess
- In May, one resident I’ll call Loren—they requested anonymity due to fear of retribution and professional repercussions for their advocacy on behalf of their block—reached out to a Snipes regional manager about the trash piling up in front of their house and the dumpsters sitting out in the open.
- On May 17, Loren reached out to Councilmember Squilla’s office regarding RiteAid’s trash that was piling up directly in front of their home.
- Within minutes, Squilla’s office responded, saying that they would “ask sanitation to reach out to RiteAid to address this problem.” Loren thanked Councilmember Squilla, and provided the addresses of all the offending businesses.
- Loren and others began placing daily 311 calls with the City, again, to no avail.
- On May 28, Snipes’ manager wrote back to Loren, saying: “I sent the SM [store manager] to go speak to you as well as visited the location today to personally view the problem. I reached out to our ADMIN and requested that dumpsters be pulled off the premises completely until we get the city’s approval to add a dumpster enclosure.”
- Snipes removed their dumpster from South Watts.
- In mid-June, the Snipes dumpster returned to South Watts.
- In response to the re-introduction of the Snipes dumpster, Loren emailed Councilmember Squilla’s office on June 15, with the Snipes regional manager cc’d on the email. Squilla’s office responded within minutes, stating that they “have asked Sanitation to inspect the location of the dumpster and work with the store and residents on an acceptable placement that complies with the regulations.”
- On June 16, Loren emailed Deputy Streets Commissioner for Sanitation Keith Warren about the dumpsters.
- Three days later, while waiting on a response from Mr. Warren, Loren witnessed two regular substance users on South Watts have public sex next to one of the dumpsters.
- The residents decided to go public with their plight. While compiling information to share, they found that the dumpsters were in fact illegal. According to PM-308.4 of Title 4 of the Philadelphia Building Code, “A dumpster … that is stored out-of-doors, but not in the public right-of-way, shall be maintained within an enclosure to conceal the dumpster from view from the right-of-way. A dumpster enclosure may be an opaque fence, a shrubbery fence, or an enclosed structure.”
- On June 20, Loren published the “Clean Up the 2000 Block of S. Watts” website, featuring pictures of the dumpsters and the unsavory activity.
- On June 24, Deputy Commissioner Warren responded, stating that the dumpsters are licensed. But that doesn’t exempt the dumpsters from abiding by the relevant laws and regulations for license holders. As residents retorted in the documentary they have posted to their website: “You might have a driver’s license, but that doesn’t mean you can drive on the wrong side of the road, drunk.” Warren and other city officials told the residents that the dumpsters in question are in the public right-of-way, and thus exempt from the opaque enclosure requirement.
- Residents found copies of the dumpsters’ licenses via the city’s Electronic Commercial Licensing, Inspection and Permit Services Enterprise, or ECLIPSE, system and saw that these businesses in fact hold private licenses, not public right-of-way licenses. (Though, even if they were public right-of-way licensed dumpsters, the City’s dumpster laws indicate that “In instances where a dumpster may impede pedestrian passage or offend nearby residents, users may be required to handle their trash in an alternate manner that does not require a dumpster.”
- In late June, Loren sent Snipes a cease and desist letter.
- In early July, Loren says, Snipes placed a new, second dumpster on South Watts.
- On July 4th, the “Clean Up the 2000 Block of S Watts” website released their video, providing proof of their block’s dumpster presence and recounting their outreach to city officials to the wider public.
- The release of the documentary helped South Watts Street residents gain the attention of public officials as well as an East Passyunk Facebook group. A few East Passyunk community members, as well as South Watts residents themselves, reached out to the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association (EPX) in the hopes of setting up a meeting with elected officials.
- On July 10, EPX scheduled a private Zoom meeting with four South Watts Street residents, Councilmember Mark Squilla, State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a representative from State Sen. Nikil Saval’s office, Deputy Commissioner Warren, the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, and a captain from the 3rd Police District.
- The meeting was held July 14, about three months after the residents had begun their concerted campaign to get rid of the dumpsters. Loren tells me the meeting was productive, although in their eyes, “the meeting could have been an email, because the law is clear … enforce it.” South Watts residents made their complaints abundantly clear to the relevant City officials, but action wasn’t immediately taken. (Residents did take the opportunity to raise other, non-dumpster-related concerns about wire cables and poorly lit street lights on their block and throughout the neighborhood.)
- The officials on the call have continued to be responsive since the meeting. Squilla and representatives from the businesses in question said they plan on meeting “very soon” to discuss potential solutions. Residents said they were happy to constructively engage with the businesses to find solutions, but for them, “the law is clear” and they “want the dumpsters gone” in the end.
- On Tuesday, July 20, Snipes replaced their dumpsters with trash cans. The trash cans were outside in the early morning, but had been moved inside prior to noon.
- That same Tuesday, Councilmember Squilla made good on his promise of a solutions-oriented meeting. Squilla, Deputy Commissioner Warren, a Sanitation enforcement officer, an L & I representative, and an L & I enforcement officer came and met with two South Watts residents on South Watts Street in-person, as well as the executive director of the East Passyunk Business Improvement District. They toured the short block on foot, seeing for themselves the human feces and needles that now lay between the store dumpsters. Deputy Commissioner Warren said that the Streets Department would be installing an additional street light on South Watts. They also promised that within two weeks, new, brighter LED light bulbs would be installed in all of the existing street lights.
- The City officials also pledged that they would go back to their offices following the meeting and issue the appropriate dumpster citations and violations to the offending businesses. The East Passyunk Business Improvement District plans on assisting the businesses on finding new legal means of managing and disposing of their waste.
Time spent: Three months (plus untold years of sporadic efforts).
Result: It looks like South Watts residents’ efforts have finally kicked their elected officials into gear. Residents are cautiously optimistic that the hated dumpsters’ days on their block are numbered.
Takeaways: Sure, the South Watts residents’ months-long fight on behalf of their neighborhood underscores the power of engaged citizenship: By working together and amplifying their message in creative ways, South Watts residents were able to get City officials to actually do something.
But more importantly, this dumpster saga raises a troubling question: Is the City of Philadelphia capable of providing its citizens with basic services that will keep them happy—and keep them here? Trash—getting it picked up promptly, not allowing businesses to have illegal dumpsters—should be an easy win.
Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️⚡️Snipes dumpsters on South Watts, courtesy of residents