Just beyond the doors of the Hartford Advocate office exists a Twilight Zone of trash. Hereabouts one finds arguably the largest thicket of litter and illegally dumped trash in the city: shopping carts, old tires, small appliances, busted furniture, mattresses, clothing, fast-food containers, festering garbage, cans and bottles and jugs, oh my. This coral reef of blight is unbroken for blocks, a monument to human sloth.
Bringing it to the city’s attention sometimes results in a visit by a Public Works crew, but the cleared area is filled by the following week by more of the same. During occasional walks around the block, I’ve picked up what I can carry, but it barely makes a dent. It is, as Jeremy Dworshak of Steinwall Co, a plastic molding company, told me, “equivalent to toweling off your wet car in the middle of a thunderstorm. Without mitigating the source of more waste, the effort to clean up the current mess would be futile.”
Charmaine Craig, the program manager at Knox Parks Foundation, a trust set up in 1966 by Betty Knox to “help improve the city,” is battling the source of more waste. Among her other jobs, she’s the coordinator of volunteer-run community gardens, tree plantings, and litter patrols in Hartford. Energetic and upbeat, Craig has recently noticed a renewed spirit, especially in the past three weekends, during which Hartford has participated in a nationwide cleanup sponsored by Stamford-based Keep America Beautiful.
“I’ve never seen such energy in the city as on these past three weekends,” she said. “We had 20 separate cleanups going at one time across the city.” As many as 500 volunteers turned out to organize ad hoc litter pickups throughout Waterbury the past two weekends, each weekend netting 10 tons of trash. Similar efforts were organized in Bridgeport and New Haven. And the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London won a national competition, called “RecycleMania” with 81.75 total pounds of recyclables collected per student over 10 weeks.
Anyone who missed the good vibes will get one more shot at joining the fun on Saturday, May 8, the final weekend of the city’s intensive cleanup. Craig insists the cleanups won’t stop there.
“We encourage volunteer cleanups all year round,” she says. “Come down on Friday to pick up equipment like rakes, pickers, brooms, gloves and bags, then return it on Monday.”
She cites Pope Park Highway off Park Street and the tunnel on Capitol Avenue as tiny victories in the war on blight. “That tunnel on Capitol Avenue used to be ugly and choked with trash, and Hartford High School students walked through it twice a day. Last year, volunteers and students cleaned it up and Carlos Chavez painted the mural, and we planted 300 day lilies, and now there are no abandoned appliances or piles of junk. It’s now a corridor of hope.”
These, of course, are only temporary solutions. Volunteer litter patrols are nice gestures, but at some point the city must step in and start arresting and prosecuting the dumpers. This is not just an aesthetic problem. It is an environmental and even public safety problem (lit cigarette butts can start fires). And it’s also psychological. When city residents see trash-strewn streets, their sense of powerlessness is reinforced. If it’s a matter of sending a signal, perhaps the best strategy is to make those caught dumping do a set number of hours of community service to work off their fines.
“As soon as it’s warm, the tires appear, then the garbage and mattresses,” says Craig. “The whole situation is chronic. As soon as you get it up, it’s right back down. What can you do? You can’t just stop picking it up. We have to instill that this is a citywide duty.”
Craig recalls her first time working on a cleanup effort. “I stopped to admire all the work we’d done and just then a car drove by and someone tossed a McDonald’s cup on the ground,” she says.
Contact Knox Parks Association at knoxparks.org, or call (860) 951-7694.