Foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy: Philadelphia!
In my earliest Central-Western Pennsylvania recollections, I learned that Philadelphia was not a place I wanted to be. It was filthy, it was corrupt, it was dangerous. An “I know someone who knows someone who was killed there” kind of place. Maybe these things once were true, to some degree, but by all accounts—the school system aside—even Penguins fans could agree that things have gotten better.
But there’s a reason “Filthadelphia” is A Thing. There’s a reason “It’s the law, don’t litter” was a Mayor’s Office of Information and Complaints campaign 60 years ago—around the same time the world’s largest litter basket left Philadelphia on a national tour touting that “Billy Penn sure would frown if you litter-up his towne.” There’s a reason the very first essay published on Philly Skyline, titled simply “Brown,” centered on litter from a 30 minute walk in G-Ho before “G-Ho.” There’s a reason Unlitter Us exists from a 21st Century city agency. There’s a reason, above all others, I chose to leave Philadelphia after living nine years here, the last two and a half of which in Fishtown.
Yo man: Philadelphia is dirty. Filthy.
Litter has drawn the ire of many a resident and visitor since the days of open sewers on High (Market) Street and tanners on Dock Street, since John Adams sang about “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia” in 1776, the musical. Ray Nagin, in his post-Katrina mayoralty of New Orleans, came to Philadelphia in 2007 on a tour of Mayor Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, and he said that if his residents came to Philadelphia, they’d appreciate how clean New Orleans really is. Ouch.
Center City District’s teal-clad folks on litter machines, the Big Belly trash bins CCD has paid for, and the neighborhoods like Old City and Fairmount who emulate them—these people do a fine job keeping their jurisdictions clean. But Philadelphia’s litter problem extends to all its reaches, from overlooked Poquessing Creek at the rear of Franklin Mills Mall to the oily slicks of Darby Creek flowing through John Heinz Wildlife Refuge past the airport.
In 2009, in the weeks leading up to our relocation to Portland, Oregon—a city Reader’s Digest determined was the cleanest in America—my ex and I ticked off our Philly Bucket List of things we wanted to either finally do or do one last time before heading west. We hit one of these, brunch at Valley Green Inn followed by a Wissahickon hike, on a gorgeous fall day. And while the brie-stuffed french toast was as spectacular as ever, the hike down to the Livezey House . . . it was disheartening, to say the least, when we encountered the piles of trash near Devil’s Pool, trees and famous Wissahickon Schist rocks tagged with bad graffiti.
Five years later, and with a lot more nature on my brain, I live four blocks from one of the many many access points to Wissahickon Park, the 1800 acre gorge that directly serves Roxborough, Andorra, Manayunk, East Falls, Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill, and the rest of the city and region via a short drive, train ride, bike ride, or hike.
I’ve made it my mission to get into the park as much as possible for my physical and mental health, and as a method of doing something about the litter that bothers me so, I’ve chosen to pick up every piece of litter I encounter on hikes at least once a week. For all of 2014. And I’m saving it. And at the end of the year, I’ll present it.
As the name implies, One Man’s Trash is a solo effort in the name of research, of environmental betterment, of awareness and activism, of art. The idea is to see how much litter a single person can accumulate not just in Philadelphia, but in Philadelphia’s closest-to-pristine natural area.
A mystique must surround the Wissahickon when a religious leader and his band of hermits want to ride out the end times there—in the 1690s; when Edgar Allen Poe writes an 1843 account suggesting Europe has nothing like it (this coming 25 years before its acquisition into Fairmount Park); when a summer crowd diverse in both demographic background and park usage tears down my indoctrinated Philly wall in summer 2000.
The Wissahickon is a wonderful Philadelphia place, but one that unfortunately suffers from the Philly Problem. Litter still runs rampant in the Wissahickon, from small cigarette butts and candy wrappers to large grills and discarded car parts. Friends of the Wissahickon holds a number of cleanup days, including the MLK Day of Service, and teams of volunteers have to clean up problem areas like Devil’s Pool and under Henry Avenue Bridge frequently in warmer months.
But for my part, my only-child Leo who never cared for the group projects in college, I’m going it alone to see what I can find. Here on Philly Skyline, as 2014 unfolds, I’ll be posting a weekly report with my findings: a list of items collected, sorted by type (plastic, metal, glass, paper, clothing, sporting goods, etc), photos from that day’s hike, a map of the route, and other miscellany. Once the weekly report has been filed, the items will be sorted and stored in bins—and kept for the duration of 2014. When the year is over, I will present everything I’ve found with an art installation whose scope and location will be determined. I’ll also have actual data that can be helpful to Parks & Rec and Friends of the Wissahickon.
To be clear: I’m not doing this to be cute. There’s nothing cute about litter, not even the Arctic Splash cartons so well known in Fishtown. Litter is disgusting, and collecting it for a year is a way of finding out just how disgusting and far gone the problem is. Also, I’m not doing this for me, at least beyond the fact that I would love for Wissahickon Park (and all public spaces) to be litter free. Pack it in, pack it out—even the apple cores, even the banana peels, even the cigarette butts. And clean up after your dog.
That’s another important point to note. With this project, there is one line I won’t cross: dog shit. I’m not picking up after someone else’s dog, and I shouldn’t have to. All dogs in Wissahickon Park are supposed to be on a leash up to six feet, something well marked on signs throughout the park. But a vast majority of people let their dogs run free, enabling them to run off trail deep into the woods, barking at and chasing other wildlife, startling dogless park goers, making themselves prone to ticks, dropping deuces where they please. They’re animals in nature. Most dog owners pick up after their dogs and dispose of the bags. Some people don’t pick up after their dogs at all; this is bad. Some people pick up after their dogs and then throw the bag into the woods. This is THE WORST. If you’re the type of person who won’t pick up after your dog, fine, Mother Nature will dispose of what you should have. But to go to the trouble of picking up dog shit, in a plastic bag especially made for dog shit, tying it in a knot, and then chucking the petroleum-based waste full of organic fecal waste into the woods . . . this does not compute. So I will document each instance of this I encounter, filed by bag of poop or pile of poop.
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One Man’s Trash. It’s my personal excuse to get into the magical Wissahickon Park every week of 2014 and do my part to make it better. And when 2015 arrives, I’ll have a year’s worth of litter collected, sorted, and ready to present in some artistic fashion or another. Trashart.
And when that’s through, everything will be disposed of as it should be: recyclable items recycled, salvageable items donated, the rest sent to the landfill, I guess. Hopefully, there will be very little of the latter.
Along the way—and so as to not focus on a negative—I’ll present features on aspects and assets of the park: bridges, buildings, public art, history, watersheds, geology, flora, fauna, the organizations who care for the park, how the sanitation department works, assorted Wissahickon odds and ends.
So: Welcome! Now that we’re officially into the sixth week of 2014, I guess I’ve got some weekly trashart reports—Weekly Sharts, if you will—to file. Stay tuned.