On last month’s Monday “Day of Service,” Terrill Haigler, aka “Ya Fav Trashman” was organizing his usual hit-the-streets DIY community trash cleanup at yet another intersection of trash and apocalypse in North Philadelphia. The very next day, Tuesday, that same corner of 3rd and Somerville—pristine on Monday—found itself attacked by bags of fresh new trash.
Haigler was in a state of utter disbelief and despair, turning to Twitter by Wednesday with ‘before & after’ pics, and a plea for more action from city leaders. That tweet went viral locally by Thursday and was complemented by shared frustration from a Green Philly blog on Friday.
What’s fascinating, however, is not the messy, disrespectful clap back from illegal dumpers to Haigler’s trademark cleanup. It’s not even the response of more than several hundred visibly angry and exasperated Philadelphia residents on social media. What’s disturbing is that in all the annoyed responses on what to do about the ugly permanence of illegal dumping in Philadelphia, no one offered any ideas to address the real reason people keep using certain parts of Philly as an open landfill: structural neglect.
Trash is really an attack on the disinvested. It represents one more manifestation of how vulnerable, mostly Black community spaces are relentlessly pissed on—because they are so neglected to begin with and because the city fails to invest in them.
There were, of course, the usual knee-jerk suggestions on how to expand an anti-trash surveillance state in communities like North Philly. Everything from more 24-hour cameras to more police patrols or even the revival of the Streets Department’s dormant SWEEP officers program. And there were the typical calls for more trash cans and other forms of secure receptacles on every corner.
Yet, these ideas are merely short-term fixes that won’t do much beyond poking at the larger problem of broad structural and historical neglect. Install a few cameras and, at some point, they’ll end up broken or ignored. Add more police patrols and, once the noise of resident outrage passes, they’ll quietly redeploy elsewhere. You can install more trash cans, but without a Streets Department that’s fully functional, they’ll overflow.
“Isn’t Trash Just a ‘Black Thing?”
While the present problem is trash, it’s not really about the trash. It’s, first, the mindset. A subtle, but very racist notion, that this is just the way certain zip codes—the low-income, Black and Brown ones, that is—are supposed to live and this is the way they should be treated. It’s a subconscious-to-conscious acceptance by everyone, from city residents to city leadership, that these conditions of permanent neglect are normal.
“We talk so much about a genetic code that leads to these problems and outcomes,” Penn Nursing professor Dr. Therese Richmond recently told WURD’s Reality Check. “But, no, it’s not. It’s really the zip code that impacts a people’s well-being.” We don’t say it out loud, but the fact we allow the neglect to fester in plain sight for so long means we endorse it.
Trash is really an attack on the disinvested. It represents one more manifestation of how vulnerable, mostly Black community spaces are relentlessly pissed on—because they are so neglected to begin with and because the city fails to invest in them. It’s the same reason industrial polluters, for decades, positioned toxic waste sites next to distressed communities.
A 2016 study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Montana explored this. They found “… a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live. Minorities and low-income communities are seen as the path of least resistance because they have fewer resources and political clout to oppose the siting of unwanted facilities.” Illegal dumpers, and even some residents in those same communities, play by the same unwritten rules.
Conditions of decay and piling trash which are omnipresent in the low-income and Black zip codes of Philadelphia would never be tolerated in middle-class to affluent and largely White zip codes that are either in the city or neighboring counties. Trash strewn along stretches of Old York Road through townships like, say, Abington, would just never happen with the regularity of dumping along streets, lots, bus and subway stops, sidewalks, house steps and yards in North Philadelphia or elsewhere. The permanency of trash isn’t even that present inside the deeper central parts of the city like Old City or Society Hill where, once again, mostly affluent White residents live.
Conditions of decay and piling trash which are omnipresent in the low-income and Black zip codes of Philadelphia would never be tolerated in middle-class to affluent and largely White zip codes that are either in the city or neighboring counties.
What’s the difference between these two sets of places? Race, income and rates of investment based on those two key factors. We’ve simply grown accustomed to those differences (in some respects like old uncomfortable stereotypes of how we look and live) to the point where we normalize them.
Let’s be honest: Structural neglect throughout low-income zip codes in Philadelphia—or most distressed spaces in any major urban center, for that matter—sends an immediate signal to those who would throw trash and illegally dump (residents or not). Illegal dumpsters (and everyone else who are too impatient to wait for a proper trash can) know these neighborhoods are spaces policy makers discard. Clearly, no one cares, so, “why should I care?” (Hear it? A Styrofoam food container flies from a moving car on the city street).
We’re not finding basic amenities like parks or libraries. Schools are either crumbling or were already shuttered. It’s already unsafe in those neglected spaces as hundreds of people are fatally and non-fatally shot each year. Homes are rotting and the residents who live in them can’t fix or maintain them. Streets are cratering, sidewalks constantly buckle and crack, and there’s little—if any—access to decent grocery stores.
Many residents, like those who perished in the Fairmount housing crisis fire, are stuffed into cramped multi-family housing because rents are increasingly out-of-reach. Transportation options are limited. Young people in these neglected zip codes aren’t being adequately educated by the city’s school system, and many of their parents and older family aren’t adequately employed. There’s no generational wealth transfer taking place, so we’ll (sadly) anticipate poverty for another 100 years.
Trash is where the money isn’t
This ongoing cycle of neglect in a neighborhood doesn’t slow down or stop until mostly White, affluent people move in, which essentially makes neglect the primary motivation behind gentrification. Gentrification doesn’t happen until properties are drastically cheap enough to spur a subsequent real estate gold rush of house flips and flops, and that cheapening of property doesn’t happen without, first, deep neglect.
As New York University’s Amanda Boston writes, these communities go “from racialized neglect to racialized reinvestment.” There is ongoing “… serial forced displacement [that] has directly and disproportionately heightened Black urban dwellers’ vulnerability to risk and dislocation, as well as institutional and interpersonal violence. It has undercut rich legacies of resistance, traumatized families and support networks, created barriers to wealth, and stymied political power.” Gentrification is when the amenities are either re-installed or built anew because, suddenly (will you look at that) the Black people vanish.
Trash piles up in Philadelphia neighborhoods where the investments in basic city services and civic amenities are in very short supply. City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart revealed how this takes place in different parts of the city based on zip code in her November 2021 report on Sanitation Performance Metrics. “Our analysis confirmed what Philadelphians have experienced firsthand, that the pandemic had a severe impact on trash collection citywide,” says the Controller. “But that was not felt equally across neighborhoods.”
The LA Times illustrated a similar trend in Los Angeles trash management back in 2015. And a 2017 analysis of nearly $1 billion in Baltimore city projects showed a similar arrangement, according to a Baltimore Sun investigation: “… predominantly White neighborhoods were slated for almost twice as much spending over the past five years as mostly minority parts of the city.”
If basic amenities and services are the gold standard in middle-class to affluent majority White communities in Philadelphia, why can’t they be the gold no-trash standard in economically distressed majority Black communities? What makes them so different that the Black neighborhoods can’t get the same level of attention?
One school of thought is that well-to-do White zip codes in the city and region have a larger home-owning tax base that’s able to pay for amenities. But tax-base disparities shouldn’t make these differences acceptable, or prevent us from fixing the problem, especially when we’re faced with destructive levels of neglect.
Plus, it’s based on a faulty assumption: homes in low-income neighborhoods are already paying double the amount of taxes than what homes in wealthy neighborhoods are paying, according to a 2021 University of Chicago study. So where does all that money end up if higher taxed low-income neighborhoods are paying more, while also getting ‘Black Taxed’ in mortgage interest payments and mortgage insurance premiums, plus the ‘inequitable fines and fees’ associated with, simply, being Black in America?
We already know, thanks to more research from the city Controller, that Philadelphia property tax assessments have long victimized vulnerable residents, while those enjoying lower assessments or tax abatements can live comfortably—and have their trash picked up frequently, too. If our communities are paying that much in collective taxes and fees, trash should be the least of our worries, right?
Now is the time to invest
When we start demanding to reverse years of neglect in Black communities, we always get this counter: “We can’t pay for all of this.” This is especially the case when considering the scale of redlining, pernicious policymaking and disinvestment. There’s quite a bit of trash and quite a bit of other out-of-control social costs to address.
But the reality is, we are willing to pay for basics like trash pickup, as well as for other amenities, in White neighborhoods. And we have already committed more funds to this problem citywide. Since ecoWURD explored “The Cost of Trash in Philly” before the pandemic, the Streets Department budget went from $143 million in FY19 to $170 million in FY21; that’s an 18 percent increase during the pandemic. Yet, trash pick-up is still worse in income-strapped zip codes.
Meanwhile, the City has $3 million to bribe anti-vax cops into finally getting jabbed, and it’ll continue paying the pension of a federally convicted Councilman (along with the salary of another one who’s federally indicted).
The time is now to radically rethink how we deploy funds to underserved communities to keep them safe and clean. For the first time in years, Philadelphia—like cities and states across the country—are flush with Covid relief (and other) funds from the federal government. As Drexel’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab Director Bruce Katz wrote in a Citizen analysis last year, Philly’s set to receive more than $9.2 billion in funds and tax credits over several years.
We should see in the next couple months how Mayor Kenney proposes to spend those funds, and whether he or City Council make a clear effort to better invest in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
The solutions are there. Glitter App’s Morgan Berman argued during WURD’s 2020 ecoWURD summit at Bartram’s Garden that just $16 million from the city budget to employ several hundred Philadelphians-in-need at a $25/hour wage could activate that app to clean the city’s 10,000 most trash-hit blocks. If the city found the money to increase the Streets Department budget so dramatically during the pandemic, why can’t it find what amounts to 9.4 percent of that Department’s FY21 budget to end the trash crisis city-wide? Not only would you do that, but you could easily employ people in the communities most impacted by that trash.
Or, don’t even reinvent the wheel: Simply fund the programs, businesses and nonprofits doing the work, but still struggling to scale up. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is already planting trees, greening distressed spaces and cleaning up vacant lots where they can and looking to hire more people in those communities to do the work. Philly Peace Park has also started a bold city-wide vacant lot reclamation movement to finally clean and green space in vulnerable neighborhoods. This is an approach that would substantially increase workforce development and encourage start-up businesses to thrive in Black neighborhoods.
The neighborhood at 3rd and Somerville and surrounding blocks shouldn’t need surveillance cameras or more police—they need the full investment of funding and resources necessary to ensure a community’s survival and long-term prosperity. Clearly, Ya Fav Trashman can’t do it alone; nor does he want to. City leaders should be embarrassed by the optics of a one-man private citizen anti-trash crusade doing exactly what their multi-million dollar budgeted Streets Department is supposed to do.