Germantown: Whose Fault is the Litter Problem?

trash cans ignored

It’s a warm sunny day at Vernon Park in Germantown. Moms bring babies out in strollers to get some fresh air. But it doesn’t take long for wrappers and bottles to get caught in those stroller wheels. It’s obvious Vernon Park, like many other areas in Germantown, has a litter problem. The residents whose everyday lives this litter affects have a lot to say on the topic, both of the city and of themselves.

“I think it’s a nice park, but the city needs to get out here and clean it up,” says Felicia Thomas, a Germantown resident.

Darryl Gibson, Raheem Young and Jeffrey Wilson
Darryl Gibson, Raheem Young and Jeffrey Wilson

Jeffrey Wilson, who spent a recent afternoon at Vernon Park with a few friends, believes more cleaning initiative from the city will have far reaching impact. “It’ll improve the situation because when you see cleanliness, you act upon cleanliness. If you see your city helping, then you begin helping as a result.”

Wilson’s friend Darryl Gibson agrees. “When you walk out of your house every day and you see trash, litter, drugs, prostitutes, crack heads, you become that mentality. You become what you see. So I think one of the main things they should do is try to beautify Germantown,” he says.

But he’s also quick to admit that the city hasn’t been completely inattentive. “I do see them come out every morning (to the park). They pick up the perimeter trash, they do the trash cans, sweep. They are making efforts.”

Those efforts, however, seem to have decreased over time. “I remember probably in like 2006 there were two or three people out here. Now it’s only one,” says Raheem Young of the city’s work at Vernon Park.

City officials ignored multiple requests for comment on the litter issue in the area, but the Streets Department’s Web site states that the Sanitation Division collects and disposes of approximately 790,000 tons of trash each year throughout the entire city.

Many in the area hold Germantown residents themselves responsible for the litter problem, instead of the city. Kevin Ivery, municipal guard supervisor at Joseph E. Coleman Library on Chelten Avenue, sees area kids ignoring available trash cans.

trash cans ignored
Trash cans ignored

“Most of the young residents in the area really don’t care about the litter problem. They’ll stand next to a trash can, eat whatever they’re eating and just throw it on the ground even though the trash can is right there. I watched it a number of times just standing here on the corner of Chelten and Greene,” says Ivery.

Conni Bille, the Germantown coordinator

for the Philadelphia Neighborhoods Network, believes the litter problem is an outward expression of deeper social problems. The cause of these dirty streets, she says, is “lack of self-respect.” And the remedy? “Jobs, money, intact families. There’s no easy answer. It has to do with self esteem, basic stuff like that. You don’t care about yourself, you don’t care what things look like. It’s social depression,” she says.

Conni Bille
Conni Bille

Residents also mention home ownership as another factor in the litter problem. “You have to have a sense of ownership, to feel like you belong. If you know that eventually you’re going to own something, you have a tendency to think about it more than if you’re just going to be here a few years,” says Pamela Bracey, a member of the newly organized Germantown Community Connection.

Longtime Germantown resident Peter Hinds agrees. “Where you have more home owners you’re going to have less litter. Where you have renters you’re going to have more litter,” he says.

Whether dealing with owners or renters, the Philadelphia More Beautiful

Committee aims to help citizens organize within their individual blocks to keep their streets in order. Success varies from block to block.

Littered streets in Germantown
Littered streets in Germantown

Nettie Boykin, who has lived in Germantown for 47 years and serves as a block captain on West Seymour Street, finds a lack of interest in neighbors when it comes to street cleaning. “You put fliers out, you tell them about it. Very few come out. It’s always the same three or four people that come out,” she says.

Just a few streets over, Bille sees different results on her dead-end block of Winona Avenue. The block gets together for community cleaning days every few months. The old-fashioned brick street is high maintenance, requiring quite a bit of time to sweep and hose down. “It’s an all-day affair,” says Bille.

Commercial areas like Chelten Avenue are even harder to maintain than residential blocks. Litter decreased a bit when the Greater Germantown Business Association began using a street vacuum in the area a few years ago. But recent economic problems have business owners focusing their attention elsewhere. “It’s an issue that’s moved to the back burner over the past year because of the economic situation,” says GGBA president Nancy Wilson of area litter. “Businesses have understandably suffered and now have other things to focus on.”

Although the litter shows that some don’t think much of throwing away their wrappers and bottles where ever they

may be standing, many in Germantown care deeply about their streets. “When you ride through and you look at a neighborhood and what you see is trash, you think that we who live here don’t care. But that’s not the case. It’s just that individuals have decided ‘Ok I’m not going to sweep up,’” says Bracey.

There is room for the city to do more, but ultimately, many residents feel the responsibility rests with them. “The city cannot do it all. And furthermore, what’s wrong with you picking up a piece of paper in front of your house? It’s an individual thing,” says Hinds.

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