Fighting Litter, One New York City Neighborhood at a Time

Litter significantly depreciates the value of a home. So says research by advocacy groups like Keep America Beautiful. They report that there are economic, environmental and even social repercussions from trash on streets and sidewalks. But in the gold-rush town that is contemporary Brooklyn, all bets are off.

In Greenpoint, the long-grubby Brooklyn neighborhood of working-class family homes and industrial workshops, there have historically been few street-corner trashcans and persistent heaps of commercial trash dumped on quiet blocks. And yet the sale price per square foot there rose from $539 in 2011 to $914 in 2014.

The influx of new New Yorkers driving prices up all over the city, of course, produces more trash. Services and infrastructure that existed before prove inadequate. But in Greenpoint, for which a zoning map looks like a Tetris board of commercial, residential, and public spaces, handling that new level of trash has proven particularly difficult.

According to data from the city, Greenpoint and Williamsburg (Community Board 1) compare somewhat poorly to other neighborhoods in the borough when it comes to the cleanliness of their streets and sidewalks. North Brooklyn’s streets are also less clean than they were two years ago.

Add to that the fact that an estimated 7,000 tons of the city’s garbage is trucked to North Brooklyn every single day, and you have an exceedingly complicated neighborhood challenge. What to do?

Go D.I.Y.

That’s what Caroline Bauer and Alan Minor, two urban planners transplanted from Kansas and Alabama, did. After a chance meeting in a bar in 2012, they put into motion Curb Your Litter, a beautification and litter research project.

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Caroline Bauer and Alan Minor. Credit: The Brooklyn Paper

Minor and Bauer speculated that a great deal of the garbage on the streets must stem from the lack of public trashcans. Trashcans are generally designated only for commercial streets, not residential or industrial, Bauer explained. So, they aimed to buy used fifty-gallon oil drums, draft local artists to paint them, and set them up along the neighborhood’s main pedestrian thoroughfares.

They discovered that their plan was illegal – the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) must approve all public trashcans. And so began a long, political, and intricate collaboration between the city, the state, and local community groups, businesses, schools and residents. That collaboration caused the project to evolve from a few trashcans into community trash plans and research on the sources, composition, and even educational uses of litter.

Thank You ExxonMobil

As fate would have it, Greenpoint is built on some of the most toxic land in the country, the site of a fossil fuel spill as much as three times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster. Finally discovered in 1978, the Greenpoint Oil Spill released 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and petroleum products over several decades into the area around Newtown Creek.

Much of the oil came from refineries which would eventually be owned by ExxonMobil. A legal settlement between the oil company and the State of New York created the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, a money pot designated for neighborhood environmental projects. Money to make an officially-sanctioned impact, in other words, is there.

But getting it is hard, as getting any money through the labyrinthine system that is New York government is hard. Bauer and Minor asked the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce (whose Treasurer is Exxon’s man for their remediation obligations) to partner with them on a grant application to the Environmental Fund. They also asked a sustainability consulting group named Closed Loops to conduct a study. And they called on local non-profits and schools for help.

By the time hundreds of residents, businesses, and all the other pieces were in place and the funding was approved, it was the end of 2014.

Time For Action

Beginning in March, the project took to the streets, hosting four public litter collection events in which over 200 neighborhood residents participated. DSNY approved the new trashcans with the understanding that the Chamber of Commerce maintains them over time, a collaboration that Elaine Brodsky, chairwoman of the Chamber, calls “an additional win for us” since the collaboration will continue “long after Curb Your Litter comes to an official end.”

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Clean-up in action. Credit: Curb Your Litter

A big part of Curb Your Litter focuses on education. Students at Frances Perkins Academy, for example, are participating in a class taught by the Center for Urban Pedagogy that will culminate in a documentary film about our collective trash’s ultimate destination.

And the initiative builds on other community efforts, such as the Clean Greenpoint Pledge in which area businesses promise to help maintain clean streets. The Pledge campaign was launched in 2013 by local City Council Member Steve Levin and the Chamber.

So Where Does Our Litter Come From?

Closed Loops has begun a scouring analysis of the what, where, who, when, and how of Greenpoint’s litter.

Is the litter from individuals who don’t have a public trashcan immediately at hand? Is it from families dumping their trash because their housing situations make that the easiest option? Is it from large bags overstuffed and splitting open; renters taking trash curbside days before pickup; collectors of cans and bottles ripping open bags for their bounty and leaving what’s left to spill onto the street?

And what about the thousands of trucks that deliver a third of the city’s residential and commercial trash to North Brooklyn, home to the city’s largest concentration of waste transfer stations, every single day?

The official results will be issued later this month, though it seems there may be a lack of consensus about the litter’s origins. Preliminary findings indicate a great deal of the neighborhood’s litter is the menus and newspaper coupons dumped on front stoops. Bauer notes that the trash trucks are covered and does not credit them with any significant contribution to the problem.

In a story we ran in October of 2014, however, environmental justice advocates talked to us about the connection between local waste management operations and Greenpoint’s litter problem. They cited issues like leaking and improperly covered garbage trucks used by private carters. The waste management industry is well-established in North Brooklyn, and it may be that any contribution they make to the problem is one to be examined further down the line.

Changing Patterns of Behavior

Curb Your Litter’s preliminary findings also indicate that modeled behavior plays a big part in litter. If a trashcan is overflowing and that first person sets his coffee cup on the ground next to it, the next passerby with trash seems to feel freer to set her cup alongside it, and the pile grows from there. Bauer suspects that the ultimate culprit will prove to be inadequate collecting capacity.

“The sheer density of people here increases the amount of detritus in the streets,” she said. “We consume so much and generate so much litter that even if the streets were very clean, people would still litter. We need more trash cans and more trash pickup.”

And what about the psychology of littering, the social or mental mechanism that leads people to drop junk on the streets and keep moving? “I think values shift when there’s this idea that you’re sort of anonymous,” Bauer said, “and nobody’s going to see you littering. And they shift when other people have done it, too.”

Which begs the question: Are values really values when they disappear so quickly?

But that’s a study for another day.

A Tenuous Balance: Surfing and Development in the Rockaways

Editor’s Note: The growing number of surfers—and new residents—in the Rockaways has attracted significant public attention. A recent New York Times article focuses on the conflict between residents (new and old) and surfers who both feel they have a claim to the area.

Underlying these developments is the sobering fact that the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the most vulnerable areas of New York City relative to climate change. FEMA’s recently revised 100-year flood maps now include virtually the entire peninsula and its 100,000-plus residents. During Superstorm Sandy, sections of the Rockaways experienced 14-foot storm surges.

NYER contributor Jason Leahey spent some time exploring the Rockaways this summer and this is what he saw.

According to Jeff Anthony, the intersection of Beach 67th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard used to be, “just stray dogs and dune grass and garbage.” Then thousands of townhouses, in shades of cream and wash-worn blue, appeared. Then Superstorm Sandy hit land.

And today, the Rockaways are home to a booming surf scene.

Anthony, an instructor for Skudin Surf, one of a handful of schools that operate on the beach, grew up on this strip of sand crimped between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic. Standing on his boogie board by age seven, he grew into a member of a small but dedicated local surf scene. The Rockaways were different then. More off-the-map. Miles of beach were completely closed.

Around fifteen years ago, “train surfers” who lived across the city began hopping the A line with their boards and hitting the beach in the Rockaways.

Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.
Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.

Then, three years ago, Sandy put the Rockaways on a heap of New Yorkers’ personal maps of the city. And they started coming, too.

Surge in Surfers

The surf schools, spread beneath logoed shade canopies along the sand from 67th to 69th Streets, do significant business. On a Wednesday afternoon in August, Anthony and two other instructors wrapped up a class of six- to twelve-year-olds by calling them into a huddle, whispering words of encouragement, and leading them as they raised their hands in the air and cheered. The kids scampered.

Thirty minutes later, the men were leading a class of teenagers from a local religious camp, guiding them through their stretches, delivering advice: “Definitely drop into that second wave; you need to lean up and back,” and quizzing them on the effects of the sun’s heat on water. “If you’re a surfer, you also have to be a meteorologist,” Anthony stated. A few yards down the beach in each direction, other instructors taught individuals, pairs, groups of three.

Lauren Monte, a Brooklynite, moved here ten years ago. Her seven- and twelve-year-olds are spending their second summer surfing. She told how the schools lead beach cleanups, how they pooled together money to buy a board for a kid who couldn’t afford one, and how they work with groups of people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. “It’s a very giving community,” she said.

These days, there are surf instructors who have moved here from South Africa, Germany, and Hawaii. There are surfers who live in Puerto Rico or Costa Rica the rest of the year but come to the Rockaways to live and surf in the summer.

Now, on any decent summer Saturday, anywhere from fifty to 100 surfers cram into the water from 67th to 69th, one of the two surf zones approved by the Parks Department (the other is at 88th Street). Some of these surfers are the old hands, some are beginners with a few local lessons under their belts, some are utter novices. What had been a small community of the experienced has turned, since Sandy, into a major weekend scene.

“It’s gotten to the point,” Anthony said, describing the sheer number of New Yorkers paddling out, “where it’s almost dangerous.”

But it’s also a part of a local boon.

A Local Boon

When you get off the 67th Street A stop, the first thing you encounter is a miniature strip mall: one short block of uniform white and blue architecture that starts with an Assemblyman’s office, ends in a Thai restaurant, and feels as crisp and clean as a pair of fresh bed sheets.

Across the street, the townhouses are part of Arverne by the Sea, a 2,300-home oceanfront community that withstood Sandy’s onslaught and continues to grow. A full city block is now framed in forest-green construction walls, the buckets of backhoes rearing up into view, swiveling, dumping their loads of dirt.

New businesses and restaurants have opened as well. The boardwalk is being rebuilt. Local New York State Assembly members have begun lobbying the City to expand the surf zones, citing the economic possibilities.

The Rockaway Boardwalk. The section between Beach 86th and Beach 107th streets was re-opened this summer. The City says that the boardwalk will be continuously complete by Memorial Day 2016, with intact sections of the old boardwalk and new sections linked together. The boardwalk will be entirely completed as new construction by Memorial Day 2017. Photo: CBS News

“After Sandy, people came and started patronizing the beach,” Anthony said. “Patronizing the beach led to the concessions turning into these new areas with great new food instead of just fries and burgers. There are restaurants, a nightlife. I can go out with my girlfriend now and I don’t have to just get bar food. I can get Uzbecki food; I can get Thai food; I can get great American gastropub food.” Uncle Louie G’s, the Italian ice mainstay of Brooklyn, recently opened a new store on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 92nd.

Change Brings Conflict

This change hasn’t been without conflict. The surfers, organized into the Rockaway Beach Surfers Association, want an expanded surfing area to keep the students safe and enable the scene to keep growing. Many Arverne residents are fighting that effort because they want to swim in the ocean right in front of their homes—the same stretch of water in which the surf schools operate—but are currently forbidden to because of a lack of City personnel for lifeguarding.

And then there are the long-term residents, including some from the Sandy-devastated southwest tip of the peninsula, who are also unhappy with all the new attention and attractions.

Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey
Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey

Seen in transition like this, gentrification inevitably springs to mind. But developers and entrepreneurs didn’t demolish the old boardwalk or call attention to the overlooked possibility of a New York life lived in a beach town. Climate change did.

In 2015, the Rockaways have been discovered by a new generation of New Yorkers who, not that long ago, watched sections of it drown and burn on the news. They take the A train out and surf and eat and spend their money in the community. NY1 named Rockaway Beach the best beach of the year. Unless the next big storm dictates otherwise, the growth does not look like it will stop any time soon, and the swelling popularity of a once-secret surfing spot does not either.

“Sandy made this new surfing culture,” Anthony said, “where everybody from Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan wants to come and give it a try. I say bring ‘em. Everything’s coming. It’s gonna bring better roads, a better boardwalk. I’ll take that change any day.”

Jason Leahey is a writer, musician, and teaching artist living in Brooklyn for fifteen years. He blogs about food and gardening at PitchKnives & Butter Forks and runs the Maribar Writers Colony at Cricket Hill, and his band Commonwealth Revival can next be seen at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop on November 13, 2015. 

This is Jason’s first article for New York Environment Report.