A charcoal colored fish head tops a basic wire waste basket at the corner of Frankford and Girard avenues. Fine metallic lines detailing the fish swirl and morph together into a dark depiction of the very intersection by which the trash can stands. This apocalyptic portrait of Fishtown almost serves as a warning, a look into a world transformed by pollution and excessive waste.
According to the 2019-2020 Philadelphia Resident Survey, the condition of city streets ranked among the top three concerns of residents. This includes both the structural integrity of streets, as well as cleanliness. This is the second consecutive survey producing these results. In the 2016-2017 survey, residents were most concerned with street services, which included sanitation and snow plowing.
Although residents throughout Philadelphia are clearly concerned about the condition of city streets, communities are not complacent about it or waiting for the City to clean up their streets and recreational spaces. Instead, neighborhoods are introducing their own programs, services, and events to combat litter and beautify their spaces. Working with the City, Community Development Corporations (CDCs), and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), residents are discovering new ways to cope with trash. However, not every neighborhood in Philadelphia has access to these same resources. Residents living in less affluent neighborhoods are drowning in litter, desperately trying to address this issue themselves.
Conducted in part by BeHeardPhilly, the Philadelphia Resident Survey is a tool used by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to determine what needs improvement in the city. Using the results of the survey, the administration can allocate budgets, improve upon already existing policies, and create new programs that address residents’ grievances. As a branch of Temple University’s Institute of Survey Research, BeHeardPhilly provides a platform for residents to vocalize concerns regarding issues within their neighborhood.
“Even walking down the main road that is supposed to be the nicest one, Frankford, with all the shops and restaurants, you can’t walk five steps without seeing a bunch of stuff,” Allie Smith, a Fishtown resident, said. “Especially on, during, and immediately after trash day.”
Among the varying social issues addressed in the survey, which range from public safety to public transportation, residents were asked to rank the quality of street conditions and street cleaning in Philadelphia. A weighted 46.4% of residents ranked street conditions as poor. Only 21.2% of residents marked street conditions as good or excellent. A similar trend can be found in the residents’ rankings of street cleaning with 56.9% of people ranking the service as poor and 14.9% ranking it as good or excellent.
The Philadelphia Litter Index is a citywide surveying tool that uses computer tablets with GPS coordinates and cloud-based surveillance to track litter in the city. Accompanying the surveillance system are city agents on the ground, surveying streets, vacants lots, waterways, parks, transit stations and other public places. Neighborhoods are placed on a scale that ranges from one to four – one indicating little to no litter, four indicating an excessive amount. According to the 2019 Litter Index Report, Strawberry Mansion ranked among the top three most littered neighborhoods in Philadelphia for two consecutive surveys.
On Saturday, April 10, as a part of Fishtown’s project for Philly Spring Cleanup 2021, a group of volunteers planned to install decals around unmarked storm drains. These decals were provided by Venise Whitaker, the local constituent representative for Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke.
Clarke represents the city’s 5th Council District, which includes both Fishtown and Strawberry Mansion. These neighborhoods, like the majority of neighborhoods in Philadelphia, have been affected by litter, and Clarke’s office hopes to fight this problem through effective communication and anti-litter initiatives, like the spring cleanup.
“It gives people a more of a sense that a) they can do something, make their neighborhood cleaner, and b) that City government is actually going to come out and assist them in cleaning and cleaning up their neighborhoods,” Joe Grace, director of communications for Clarke, said in regard to the citywide spring cleanup. “So that sense of community engagement and cooperation between residents in the neighborhood in the city, city government in the purview of the Streets Department. That shouldn’t be forgotten or looked at lightly, makes people think that City Hall is actually paying attention and working for them.”
“We have been dealing with the litter issue for years now,” Judith Robinson, a resident of Strawberry Mansion and member of Susquehanna Clean Up/Pick Up Inc., said. “Well, we started off just being good citizens, just cleaning up in our neighborhood, sweeping up our own pavement. Then, we realized that people were coming out of their homes bringing trash outside. And, so, we realized that we need to expand just from cleaning up to outreach. You know, trying to do prevention. We didn’t want to clean every day.”
So, the residents of Strawberry Mansion turned to the City, hoping an increase in recycling would mean a decrease in litter. According to Robinson, promoting recycling throughout the neighborhood had some benefits. Better relations were built between neighbors, as well as between Strawberry Mansion and the City. Yet, there was no noticeable impact on Strawberry Mansion’s litter problem. This is when Robinson turned to her neighbors for help.
“And, we had these young men, they were nice guys, I saw them as my neighbors,” Robinson said. “But, they were kind of idle hands, smoking their weed and talking in front of my office. So, I bought a rolling trash can, some brooms, some shovels, and I rolled them down Susquehanna Avenue, cleaning up that corridor from 22nd Street to Broad Street. Yeah, and these young men from the neighborhood. I figure I make a little economic development thing out of it. Just to show the City. Listen, you can create a job just out of the basics.”
Robinson and the Susquehanna Clean Up/Pick Up Inc. then turned to partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to clean designated, vacant lots throughout the neighborhood. At first, volunteers set to cleaning up 50 lots, throughout Strawberry Mansion. However, this number soon doubled and neighbors volunteered monthly, from April to October, to clean 100 vacant lots in the neighborhood. This contract between Strawberry Mansion and the PHS lasted a decade.
Vacant lots pose a threat for neighborhoods. According to Robinson, illegal dumping is one of the greatest factors attributing to the neighborhood’s litter problem and comes from different sources.
“Something is going on that our corners are being allowed to be used as dump sites,” Robinson said. “Now, fast forward to the future. Everybody wants to say something that is crazy as hell, and please don’t put this in any of your writing: ‘A cleaner community is a safer community.’ That’s a bunch of garbage. We have been cleaning and greening and listen, that might be an ideal policy somewhere in somebody’s head. We have three or four police departments in our neighborhood. We have PHA. We have the City of Philadelphia. We have Temple’s force, which I understand is one of the largest in the damn city, and we have SEPTA police. So, they got all these, and we clean. We got the CLIP program. We got the cleaning program. We got this, that. It’s not true. How come it’s not true in this Black community, in the 22nd District? Clean a community, all of the sudden it’s safer? I heard somebody say that the other day, ‘The more security you have, the safer it is.’ Not true, else we should be the safest in the nation.”
Most prominently, Robinson observed that Temple’s expansion farther into North Philadelphia has contributed most to Strawberry Mansion’s short dumping problem. Due to Strawberry Mansion’s close proximity to Temple, land developers gentrifying the neighborhood for new, off-campus student housing will leave construction debris in vacant lots. Temple students and their landlords, upon move out, will clean out apartments and leave trash along the curb, not waiting to see if it will be picked up.
“You know what?” Robinson asked. “Trash is money. Waste management is money management, you know? It’s never going to stop. We know there’s always going to be trash. That’s why there’s trash pick up every week. And it’s not necessarily going to get better. This is something strange going on, come outside and bring trash out of their home. And, I realized it’s almost like I’m fighting the devil or something.”
In order to fight this demonic presence in Philadelphia, Robinson believes Temple University, SEPTA, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) need to band together. She feels as though City agencies and other large organizations have been behind the scenes, watching citizens fight litter, while idly standing by.
“There is no way that little community groups, even with the little, weak contract we had, can bring that [their efforts to fight litter] all over the place,” Robinson said, explaining the need for collaboration between residents and institutions. “And, we didn’t limit ourselves based on what little bit of money we had. That’s where we live.”
THE INEQUITIES OF TRASH
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to walk around the City of Philadelphia and look at how affluent neighborhoods are treated versus under-resourced neighborhoods,” Heidi Grunwald, managing director of BeHeardPhilly, said, explaining the disparity within resident rankings of these social issues.
When Philadelphia’s street sweeping program was dissolved by former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration in 2009, the onus to keep a neighborhood clean fell to the people who live there. Mayor Jim Kenney planned to reinstate this abolished program, and street sweeping was set to be citywide in 2020. Yet, with the start of the pandemic and the reallocation of the city’s planned budget, Mayor Kenney paused the program.
Now, as the pandemic comes to a close, Mayor Kenney plans to spend $62 million over the next five years to expand upon Philadelphia’s updated street sweeping program that piloted in 2019. An essential part to this program is the “litter task force,” which will be implemented before the official reboot of the street sweeping program. Made up of a group of volunteers, Philadelphia’s newest task force will meet six times a year to identify problematic areas around the city. Community members and leaders will then design and execute Neighborhood Litter Control Plans in the hopes of combating the unique ways in which litter enters, or stays, in a neighborhood.
“I guess I don’t really see the need for a new task force for this because we know what to do, they’re solved problems,” Jon Geeting, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA), said. “The taskforce move is always sort of like city government’s way of punting things that they don’t want to do anything about. So it just feels like this is a lay tactic, more than it’s about anything.”
Until this full expansion, and perhaps after, the burden placed on Philadelphia’s residents by Nutter’s administration won’t fully disappear. This responsibility includes the removal of litter, which occurs on both an individualized and organized scale, which are privately funded but not a part of taxpayer funded City services, as described by Robinson.
In more affluent neighborhoods like Fishtown, community organized groups, such as the Fishtown Beautification Committee and FNA, have to apply for grants to fund anti-litter programs and infrastructure.
“It’s not easy, right,” Ellis Mair, chair of the Fishtown Beautification Committee, said in regard to obtaining grants from benefactors like the Penn Treaty Special Services District. “It’s not easily accessible or available. You really need to do your research and understand what organizations you can reach out to for this help.”
CDCs and BIDs, like the Penn Treaty Special Services District, are organizations that typically pay for street cleaning services and trash removal. While CDCs usually gain funding through the city and/or philanthropic groups, BIDs are funded through businesses in the area. Essentially, these businesses tax themselves, and these taxes are used towards community development. Under-resourced communities typically do not have CDCs or BIDs, and when applying for grants from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, there needs to be a legal entity involved for a neighborhood to be eligible to receive grants for litter removal. These grants also have to be met with large amounts of funds that most neighborhoods don’t have.
Undeniably, socioeconomics factor into which neighborhoods can afford to keep their own communities free from trash and litter. The more affluent a neighborhood, the more disposable resources like time and money can be funneled into quality of life issues like trash and litter.
“I happen to be the president of our neighborhood’s CDC in East Falls,” Grunwald said. “Here, we have a grant from the commerce department at the CDC to pay for street cleaning, but we also have to match that with significant funds. Some of these neighborhoods just don’t have that capacity. So, again, richer neighborhoods look nicer because of the resources there, not just by individuals but by the commercial assets they have.”
THE COLLECTING OF TRASH
However, the wealth gap that plagues Philadelphia residents and plays out across city sidewalks and streets is only one part of the problem. Grunwald attributes Philadelphia’s trash and litter problem, in part, to the city’s old fashion trash collection techniques and outdated infrastructure. A similar observation was made by Smith.
“If there was any way the City could provide trash bins with lids, I think that would make a major difference,” Smith said.
On a Sunday night in April, it isn’t uncommon to hear the high pitch wails of racoons as they fight over scraps of food scavenged from unprotected trash bags. In the morning, while the city remains eerily quiet, a squirrel may pop its head from an uncovered trash can, check to make sure the coast is clear, and steal away with its newly found treasure, usually crust from a pizza. The animals scatter when the garbage truck comes for collection.
In Philadelphia, trash collection techniques usually air to a more traditional style. As the clunky, metal truck squeezes down the street, it stops in front of each residence. Two collectors jump from their precarious positions on the back of the truck and throw trash into the compactor that makes up the rear of the vehicle. As they throw torn open RiteAid bags into the truck, debris spills from the tears. This trash lays abandoned on the street along with the litter that has already blown around the block from open trash cans and bags.
“I don’t actually think it is the fault of waste management,” Grunwald said. “I think it is the fault of resources, planning, and infrastructure.”
Fishtown is both frequently traveled and heavily visited, compounding litter issues in the area. Along with the trash generated by daily traffic patterns, Fishtown is a hotspot for visitors, both citywide and nationwide. Popular restaurants and peaceful parks attract tourists. With more people, comes more trash.
“We just get a lot of visitors,” Geeting said. “I’m not going to say that visitors are more responsible for the trash or neighbors are. I honestly don’t know. Trash is trash, but regardless there’s a lot of people around.”
Additionally, two major transportation routes run through the neighborhood, the Market-Frankford line and I-95. As elevated routes, litter produced by these two sources presents a unique threat to Fishtown residents – trash coming from above.
“We’re interesting too ‘cause 95 kind of runs through our neighborhood and so does the L,” Mair said. “So, we also have trash potentially coming from above.”
The City of Philadelphia has struggled to operationalize an equitable litter plan and allowed the issue to fester and infect other aspects of residents’ lives. People have noted how it is difficult to look at a littered street and have pride in the neighborhood. This extends Philadelphia’s trash problem from an environmental issue to a social issue.
“And, then, we just have a culture where people see trash,” Grunwald said. “So, they think it’s not a big deal to throw trash, and that’s kind of the sadder part. That’s the, ‘Well, if no else values my neighborhood, maybe I won’t’ [thought process].”
The Fishtown Beautification Committee and FNA are assisting residents in reclaiming their neighborhood from litter.
“It’s gross, but it’s also a sign that people don’t care,” Geeting said. “We care. We’re not the City, and we’re not a professionally staffed organization. We’re all volunteers. So, we are limited in what we can do.”
“I mean, the litter is outrageous,” Smith said. “I truly don’t have words to describe it, unfortunately.”
Originally from south New Jersey, Smith has always had a certain familiarity with Philadelphia. It wasn’t until starting school in Pittsburgh, where Smith was exposed to new stereotypes and criticisms of Philadelphia, that she realized the magnitude of the litter problem in Philadelphia. This realization came to reality when Smith moved back to the area from Pittsburg and into Fishtown.
“It was really mind-blowing to see how different it [litter in Philadelphia] was from other places,” Smith said. “So much to the point where other cities across the state are realizing and harping on it.”
However limited these organizations may be, FNA and the beautification committee continue to promote ways to reduce waste, provide waste containers, and encourage residents to participate in litter removal. The Fishtown Beautification Committee encourages neighbors to compost by inviting organizations, like Bennett Compost, to community meetings, introducing a new way to reduce waste. The committee is constantly reaching out to the Philadelphia Streets Department in order to obtain trash cans and recycling bins for neighbors. FNA also highlights the work of unofficial branches of FNA, such as the Friends of Penn Treaty Park, the Friends of Palmer Park, and the Friends of Konrad Square, encouraging neighbors to participate in these groups.
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fishtown Beautification Committee continues to promote community cleanup days. Since the start of the pandemic, Fishtown has hosted three official cleanup days, one in October, November, and January.
This approach seems to be working. On Oct. 17, 2020, over 60 residents came out to participate in the cleanup day. Together, yet apart, volunteers covered a significant amount of ground. Their efforts are noted by the red markings on the map of Fishtown (below left). Although not as many people participated in Fishtown’s community winter cleanup day held on Jan. 18, 2021 (below right), the day was still successful and expanded beyond Fishtown’s borders.
Respecting Philadelphia’s social distancing parameters, community cleanup days have become more independent than the typical, group-led events that predated the pandemic. Neighbors are encouraged to pick up supplies at the Fishtown Recreation Center before investing in a part of the neighborhood they care about and cleaning it up. This could be a public park or simply the street on which they live. Once neighbors have finished cleaning, they can return the filled trash bags back to the rec center, where the trash is disposed of properly.
“We have changed our approach to be a little bit more socially distant and COVID friendly, but also really empower people to take care of their own block or an area they really care about,” Mair said.
However, Fishtown’s idea for regular cleanup days isn’t the only program sponsored by FNA that has spread to other communities throughout Philadelphia.
“The City had taken notice of this new program and a few others that kind of sprung up that were similar [to the Feed the Fish program],” Geeting said. “And, they created a city forum that formalized the arrangement and encouraged more people to do it through this adopt-a-can program that they have. They say that they modeled it on our thing. So, that’s cool! That’s kind of neat that we were able to prove the concept and have the city work to expand that.”
As well as being replicated by the City, communities across the country have expressed interest in Fishtown’s Feed the Fish program.
“I also get random reach out from communities in, like, Texas or all over the country that have seen the trash cans somehow and will end up reaching out to my beautification email asking about the program,” Mair said.
In 2014, 20 trash cans topped with fiberglass fish heads hit the streets of Fishtown as a part of the Fishtown Beautification Committee’s Feed the Fish program. The fish heads, designed by Eric Allen, are painted and decorated by local artists. The program brought a splash of color to Fishtown and introduced a fun way to encourage proper waste disposal. Feed the Fish was a success. In 2017, an additional 13 trash cans were introduced to the program. All of the 33 fish are maintained by private residents and businesses throughout Fishtown.
“We are actually looking to expand the program because we have gotten a lot of feedback,” Mair said. “I end up getting a lot of emails saying, ‘Is there any way I can get a fish trash can?’ Or, ‘How do you buy them?’”
A revamping of the Feed the Fish program, which will introduce 20 more trash cans into the neighborhood, is one of two upcoming projects sponsored by the Fishtown Beautification Committee. The committee has also partnered with Fishtown neighbor Denis Devine to mark storm drains around the neighborhood.
THE CLEANING UP OF TRASH
Beginning in 2008, Philadelphia’s annual spring cleanup has been recognized as the largest, single-day, citywide cleanup by Keep America Beautiful. Established in 1953, Keep America Beautiful is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cleaning and beautifying communities across the country. Like most events taking place during the pandemic, Philadelphia’s citywide cleanup on April 10 was slightly altered. To participate in the cleanup day, individual volunteers and community groups had to register their projects with the Streets Department.
“Supplies including brooms, bags and rakes are provided by the Streets Department based on the type of project and number of volunteers registered for an event,” Keisha McCarty, communications director for the Streets Department, said via email.
Over 400 projects across the city registered for this year’s event, an impressive turnout after the Philly Spring Cleanup 2020 was cancelled.
“All these areas [in the 5th Council District] have experienced problems with litter,” Grace said. “And I think the most effective strategy is working carefully with the Streets Department, which is the primary agency in charge of cleaning up litter; but also working with the community groups, with the neighborhood associations, the civic groups. They do the work. They know where the litter problems are.”
By working closely with city agencies and residents, Clarke’s office hopes to ensure each neighborhood (in and beyond his district) is equipped with the proper supplies it needs. His office also hopes to ensure each neighborhood is able to approach this problem with the proper attention and care, because it views litter as a quality of life issue.
“And, when a neighborhood is cleaner, people feel better about the neighborhood,” Grace said. “Litter itself, of course, doesn’t cause crime. But, when a neighborhood is clean, and the streets are cleaner; when the sidewalks are cleaner, when there’s not short dumping – you know that phrase for trash that is dumped, sometimes by contractors, sometimes by others, in vacant lots; it degrades the quality of life in a neighborhood. It can make people feel a little less safe.”
In order to minimize the short dumping problem in Philadelphia, the City has placed cameras near short dumping hotspots, which will assist in penalizing illegal dumpers. According to Grace, however, the exact locations of these cameras will not be accessible to residents. By keeping camera locations under wraps, those committing short dumping won’t be tipped off. Similar to Philadelphia’s short dumping precautions, residents are ready to take back their neighborhoods and improve upon the quality of life in Philadelphia.
In Strawberry Mansion, Robinson is determined to make an impact.
“‘Look at what they did,’” Robinson said she hopes others will say this in regard to Susquehanna Cleanup/Pick up Inc.’s efforts to delitter the neighborhood. “I want to try to have that impact this year, for the first time. You know, I’m like the advocate. I’m like the town crier where I’m gonna call everybody. Today is my day to call up everybody and say, ‘Look, be ready for Saturday.’ I’m calling everybody.”
Although Robinson hoped to focus on cleaning up trash that has accumulated over the winter, Devine’s project in Fishtown with Philly Spring Cleanup 2021 aimed to be more preventative.
“A few years back, I was sitting on the steps in front of my house, when I saw across the street a young child walking with an older man,” Devine said, recalling a memory that inspired him to join in Philadelphia’s storm drain marking effort. “The kid carelessly let a candy wrapper fall to the ground. The older guy saw this, and stopped, and scolded the kid, saying, ‘No no no. That goes here.’ He picked up the wrapper and demonstrated how to toss it in the storm drain. I was aghast, but I realized that that older guy had been taught that, and obviously thought he was teaching the kid something important. He was doing the right thing, just with bad information.”
Devine hopes marking storm drains will unteach these lessons, reminding neighbors of the importance of keeping the waterways clean. Education is an important element in marking Fishtown’s storm drains. Working with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and the Philadelphia Water Department, a Zoom-based, educational lecture on water quality and wildlife was presented to residents, before they were to proceed with tagging. Educating residents, especially children, on the detrimental effects of water pollution is especially important in a neighborhood like Fishtown.
“They call us, the Northern Liberties and Port Richmond, the River Wards,” Mair said. “We are a neighborhood that’s right on the river. So, a bunch of what we do directly impacts the river that is right there.”
FNA and the Fishtown Beautification Committee don’t currently have any youth focused programming in the works, but the beatification committee has partnered with Friends of Adaire, a local organization that supports the Alexander Adaire public school in Fishtown. This partnership is meant to get kids more involved with FNA’s community clean up days.
“We believe that we want to have the school community to be taking ownership in the neighborhood and doing what we can to invest in our collective wellbeing,” Janneken Smucker, a board member with the Friends of Adaire, said. “And so being a part of that school community, I think it also models to students at the school that this is something we support, and we endorse, and is important for our neighborhood.”
Little Big Change Makers is made up of those in the school community taking ownership. Founded by a classmate of Smucker’s ten-year-old daughter, Little Big Change Makers is a group of local school-aged students committed to combating litter in their community.
Smucker recalled the group’s organized cleanup day last spring, noting the number of students and parents who volunteered to remove Fishtown’s litter. While this spring’s cleanup day may have lacked the same amount of participation among children, Smucker encouraged her own daughter to volunteer and brought her along to the event.
“See, if children see their parents littering, then they will know that it’s okay,” Smucker said, discussing the importance of teaching her daughter to actively combat litter. “The same thing is true, then, if you are seeing your parents picking up litter and trying to maintain the sidewalks and streets around your house. I mean, children are sponges. They’re going to model the same.”
Smucker wants to be a good role model for children.
“They’re going to mimic your behavior,” she said. “And so, if I am going out and doing cleanup day; and I mean, even if she hadn’t come along, she could see, ‘Oh, my mom is investing her time into the quality of life in our neighborhood.’”
Geeting also encourages high school students to participate in FNA activities, as a way to complete any required community service hours.
“I’d love to have local high school students helping out with some of the beautification activities and other stuff we’re doing,” Geeting said. “You know, we could always use a hand.”
Unlike the Fishtown residents volunteering in Philly Spring Cleanup 2021 shirts, bright yellow, reflective vests indicate SEPTA’s participation in fighting the trash coming from above, as observed by Mair. However, the Girard station wasn’t the only station SEPTA focused on. Volunteers set out to clean up litter at the bus depot in the Callowhill District, the bus depot in the Southern District, and the transportation centers in Frankford and Fern Rock. SEPTA’s participation in the spring cleanup started over a decade ago, and it is only one part of SEPTA’s efforts in cleaning up the city and helping residents.
“On a daily basis, we are cleaning at or near our stations.” Chrystalle Cooper, SEPTA’s chief officer for subway elevated modes, said. “Even though a lot of it is not necessarily our property, it’s associated with us because we’ve got stations in remote areas.”
Another campaign initiated by SEPTA aims to comfort customers and slow the spread of litter. SEPTA’s maintenance employees will be photographed and introduced to passengers via digital advertisements to ensure riders that SEPTA stations are cleaned regularly. These advertisements will be accompanied by anti-litter slogans that will remind riders to take their trash, before leaving the station.
Along with the crew from SEPTA, over 150 volunteers with FNA and the Friends of Adaire set out to beautify Fishtown, collecting more than 100 bags of trash.
Despite the progress made at the April 10 cleanup, there were still hurdles to jump. Plans to mark storm drains around Fishtown were interrupted that morning when the ground proved too wet with morning dew and the decals failed to stick to the pavement. However, Devine rescheduled Fishtown’s storm drain marking efforts for April 24, choosing a time in the afternoon to avoid running into a similar issue. With perfect weather, Fishtown residents successfully tagged 27 storm drains, even after losing some of the original volunteers to other events.
“A lot of the families were double-booked with other Earth Day Day of Service commitments, but we still had a great group of helpers,” Devine said.
While this postponement may have felt like a loss on April 10, Fishtown residents set out to keep the waterways clean. This was especially noticeable at Penn Treaty Park, where just a short time ago an abandoned shopping cart lay in the water, ducks swimming around it. On cleanup day, walking toward the park from Columbia Avenue, the cart could be seen standing upright on the curb. Surrounded by trash bags bulging with litter, waiting to be picked up by trash collection.
Unlike the cleanup in Fishtown, Strawberry Mansion was quiet on April 10. This, according to Robinson, was abnormal and most likely an effect of the pandemic. However, Robinson was not discouraged and set to clean up her block.
“To be honest, I was kind of a loner,” Robinson said. “On my own block, I stayed on my block to clean, and although I had outreach to people, I was the only one out here, by myself. It wasn’t too bad. I did my little job and the rest I left to my neighbors, who said, ‘Oh, I’ll be out tomorrow. I’m busy today, but I should certainly come out tomorrow.’”
Although Robinson’s cleanup was uneventful, she was pleased to see her neighbors kept their word and cleaned up what she couldn’t get to. They even had the fire hydrant turned on to wash down the street.
“As long as the cleaning got done, and we always clean over and over again,” Robinson said. “I always say cleaning is not something you do one time and it’s over. It’s an ongoing process.”
However, some good did arise from Robinson’s efforts. Most prominently, Robinson was able to coordinate with real estate developers in Strawberry Mansion, most of which house Temple students on their properties. Through this partnership, developers cleaned up around their properties and on their blocks, releasing some of the litter burden placed on the neighborhood. It is this partnership and cohesive action that Robinson stresses the City of Philadelphia needs to work towards in order to combat litter.
While she described her Philly Spring Cleanup 2021 as a mild experience, Robinson is enthusiastic about a new project surfacing in her community. Moving away from the issue of litter, the residents of Strawberry Mansion are looking forward to preserving the historic value of their neighborhood. On June 9, 2021, Strawberry Mansion was awarded the John Gallery Community Action Award by Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, an organization that focuses on preserving historical locations around Philadelphia and educating residents on the importance of these sites.
“I want to use that award, we want to use that award, to amplify our community and the issue of historic preservation,” Robinson said. “We have lost so much of our history in our community. We didn’t know. A lot of us did not know the history of our community. So, we allow the powers that be to tear down properties that are really historic assets.”
There are several properties around Strawberry Mansion that Robinson hopes to preserve. Among these properties is the Henry Ossawa Tanner house, located on the 2900 block of Diamond Street. As a painter practicing realism, Tanner used his art to depict the African American experience, as it was known to him. Raymond Pace Alexander and his wife, Sadie Alexander, are also connected to the Tanner house, where the Alexander’s assisted Tanner in his legal affairs. Both Raymond and Sadie were prominent African American lawyers and Civil Rights leaders. Raymond was the first African American judge assigned to the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. Robinson also mentions Pearl Bailey, a Tony Award winning actress and jazz singer, who also lived in Strawberry Mansion – buying a big blue house on 23rd Street, once she had found success in the entertainment industry.
“The bottom line is, we have an extensive boundary, and we want people to know not only are we preservationists, we have many years of real estate background, we are historians, we know tourism,” Robinson said.
After a year of apocalyptic loneliness and destruction, residents across the city are working towards the betterment of Philadelphia, fighting litter and pushing for the preservation of what makes the city beautiful. Councilmembers, city agencies, and large organizations are partnering with residents and creating new ways to not only remove litter, but to prevent litter from piling up again, as it seems to have done since 2009 – when the street sweeping program was originally disbanded. Although the City has a long way to go before winning the confidence of some Philadelphia residents, Kenney’s plan to introduce the litter task force and to finally reintroduce street sweeping to Philadelphia will hopefully take some of the litter burden away from residents, in the near future. Until then, however, residents will continue to raise their voices to fight for themselves, their neighbors and their neighborhoods.
A fish head, spotted with sunflowers, stands in stark contrast to its antithesis across the street. The bright blue background and flourishing flowers represent the Philadelphia that residents are striving for – a city reclaimed from litter.
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