Seeking a Clean Sweep

ST. PETERSBURG, FL – The criminals prevail in Midtown every night.

They are rarely caught. Often, they’re outsiders who leave calling cards: piles of shingles, broken furniture and stoves, tree branches, plaster, plastic bags.

They are illegal dumpers, the biggest sanitation problem in St. Petersburg, say city officials. The dumpers’ crimes have spoiled city efforts to clean up Midtown neighborhoods. Meanwhile, residents have been staring down the junk heaps and coping with living in a dumping ground.

A dirty history

About six years ago the city started picking up piles of garbage for free in Midtown, the area bordered by Lake Maggiore, downtown St. Petersburg, and Fourth and 34th streets.

Too many absentee landlords with too many dilapidated apartments were leaving furniture inside that Goodwill wouldn’t even take. When tenants would move in and clean out, they didn’t know whom to call to get it picked up, according to the sanitation department. They also may not have had the money to pay for the pickup. The city, tired of all the visible junk, started collecting it for free. That’s when the trouble started.

As Midtown became the only place in St. Petersburg where trash piles were picked up for free, people started taking their garbage to vacant lots and alleys. They came in trucks usually, sometimes in broad daylight, sometimes twice a day. They dumped. They left.

The sanitation department and some residents have been battling them ever since. But now, awareness of the problem has moved all the way up to the mayor’s office, and the city is forming a plan to take the trash out for good.

More than an eyesore

Lisa Wilson hits the compactor’s pump and throttle buttons inside the garbage truck that she calls her baby. She walks to the back and throws the metal release. A shopping cart crunches in the compactor, snapping flat. Next up is a beaten, wet couch. Her tractor driver, R.J. Caldwell, rams the couch into the back. Soggy cushions fall to the street, and Wilson stabs them with her pitchfork and throws them in.

“This stuff is nasty,” she says. “You can’t pick this stuff up with your hands.”

Wilson, 36, is the only woman who drives a furniture and debris truck for the city. It’s the vehicle needed to pick up trash on the ground, like furniture, brush or other dumped materials, not trash in containers. Today, Wilson and Caldwell are doing a sweep, cleaning up what they find, part of the city’s free Midtown pickup program. Because the sweeps are included in the regular routes, the sanitation department says it can’t calculate how much it costs to clean up the junk. Wilson can’t estimate it either; she just thinks it’s “a lot.”

Though she loves her work, she prefers to pick up legal waste. “You could clean it up right now and come back in a couple hours and there will be more stuff.”

“I can’t stand all this junk,” Wilson says, maneuvering her baby through a narrow alley. “You could clean it up right now and come back in a couple hours and there will be more stuff. That is how bad it is.”

Piles attract more piles. Mounds of garbage are more than just an eyesore though, as illegal dumping can cause serious environmental problems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), illegal dumping sites attract rodents and other vermin. Dump sites with scrap tires and plastic hold warm water, an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. The trash contributes to drain blockages and can even cause fires when composting garbage heats up and combusts.

Midtown fits the EPA description of an area most susceptible to dumping: a lower-income place with high renter populations and absentee landlords. U.S. census statistics from 2001 show renters make up more than 50 percent of Midtown’s population of 22,300. The median household income is less than $20,000, compared with $36,700 for the rest of St. Petersburg.

Wilson was raised in the neighborhoods she cleans up. Although she has seen some substantial improvements in the area, the trash upsets her.

She said, “Just to go in someone else’s neighborhood and dump a big pile of stuff? That’s not good.”

On patrol

Anthony Rivers, a 36-year-old city code inspector, patrols his territory in a shiny white truck. He cruises the Cromwell and Campbell Park areas scanning for such violations as peeling paint or tanked vehicles. Or garbage.

“When I first started I stayed in the alleys, because for me it was unbelievable, the amount of trash,” he says. He began the job three years ago and said that trash heaps in vacant and occupied private lots are one of his most frequent citations.

He passes a browned pile of brush, milk crates and broken furniture in a vacant lot. A sagging black tarp covers a corner of the mound. The trash is on a private lot, which means it’s on Rivers’ turf. The sanitation department handles dumping on public property, such as alleys and city-owned lots.

It is hard to keep illegal dumping statistics because of the way the city’s litter codes are written, police said. Throwing a gum wrapper out of a car window and dumping a flatbed full of brush fall under the same violation — littering. Littering, no matter how much, is a misdemeanor for residents unless they are disposing of hazardous waste. The police department does not keep track of those offenses.

If a business is caught illegally dumping it can be charged with a felony. Businesses are the biggest dumpers, according to the sanitation department and the EPA. The usual suspects are roofers, contractors and landscapers who want to avoid paying dumping fees for their waste.

Dump rates are the same for businesses and individuals in St. Petersburg, $37.50 a ton. Tampa charges between $50 and $71 a ton. And St. Petersburg has brush sites where people can take brush and metal for free.

Because dumping is a quick and clandestine activity, people are rarely caught. Once, while on patrol, Rivers caught men with trucks dumping in an alley, but they fled when they saw him and he did not get a license plate. It has been a year since someone was caught and cited for dumping in St. Petersburg.

Since it’s usually done at night, it’s hard to see or hear the offenders. Some residents who witness dumping say they don’t confront the people or call the police because they fear retribution. Even if they did report it, dumpers might still elude the law.

George Kajtsa, an information officer for the St. Petersburg police, says it’s difficult to catch the culprits.

“There is no way to catch somebody unless an officer is actually driving through an alley,” he said. “It’s next to impossible to catch these people.”

Cleaning up a community

Though dumpers are hardly caught, Richard Benjamin knows when they come. From his lawn chair, Benjamin, 75, pointed to his fence and the brown mutt in the yard.

“See that old dog back there,” Benjamin said. “When that old dog is barking I take a peep.” He is accustomed to seeing the criminal’s vehicles driving by at night.

“A car comes with a whole bag of trash and chucks it out the window,” he said.

He said he has been cleaning the vacant lot bordering his house on Newton Avenue and 15th Street South since 1958, when the woman who lived there died and the house was demolished. After he retired, he started cleaning his whole street, too.

Benjamin often joins Kaimbu Mudada’s morning cleanup. Residents of Mudada’s drug recovery organization, Our Brother’s Keeper, leave their housing center at 1601 12th St. S. at eight or nine in the morning with buckets, cans and pinchers to tidy up the neighborhood. They usually stop and unload halfway through the route, their buckets heavy with empty 40-ounce beer bottles discarded on the streets.

Mudada knows that outsiders dump too, but it’s not just strangers who leave trash around. He said the trash left by residents signifies their lack of respect.

“I tell people they are the community,” he said. “You are the street that has the trash on the side of the road. You are that abandoned house.”

His group’s drive to improve the community has caught on. Kids often follow the cleanup crew on their bikes. Residents thank them and leave out cold sodas. Often, neighbors will call Mudada before the sanitation department.

As the workers from Our Brother’s Keeper clean up their route, the city is working on a plan to curb all of Midtown’s dumping. Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis III is in meetings with neighborhood associations, police and code enforcement officials to make an anti-dumping plan.

City and sanitation officials can’t say for sure why it has taken so long to address the problem. Benjamin Shirley, the assistant sanitation manager, said that dumping has lately become worse.

“Over the past six to seven months it has become a real issue, just blatant disregard,” Shirley said. Davis also mentioned that the new push to revitalize Midtown highlighted the dumping problem.

The first step in cleaning Midtown will be education. The sanitation department will create a flier with information on where to take trash and whom to call. It will be given out at neighborhood association meetings and deposited on doorsteps. Then they will start cracking down.

“We want to see if we can prosecute the overt, outright illegal dumpers,” Davis said. “It’s easy to assume that the dumping is done by the residents.” He wants to combat negative stereotypes the trash causes to the neighborhoods.

Police and sanitation workers are considering stakeouts to catch people in the act. Also proposed is a plan to change city litter codes so that they have varying degrees of severity, as opposed to one blanket littering offense. Davis is also trying to create a position, probably in the police department, responsible for illegal dumping issues.

Mudada is glad to get help cleaning up, but he wants more.

“If we want people to say St. Petersburg is a nice place to live, we need to work on Midtown,” he said, “not out at the beach, because it is already nice and pretty out there.”

By Erica Lee Nelson
Photography courtesy NASA

Published on the Poynter Institute’s, July, 2003