By Melissa Dribben, Inquirer Staff Writer
Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but when Mayor Ray Nagin proclaimed Philadelphia dirtier than his beloved New Orleans, it was a political statement, not gospel truth.
There are slums and garbage and graffiti in this city, as in any other. However, the state of Philadelphia's streets changes not only from neighborhood to neighborhood, but block to block, hour to hour. In an unscientific study last week, this reporter found it is as easy to find the putrid as the sublime.
The city's main avenues flow from their source along the pristine borders of suburbia, then course through the urban terrain to the deltas of the densest neighborhoods. All along, the flotsam gathers, lodging in the deep channels under parked cars, eddying in storm drains.
Along Germantown Avenue in tidy Chestnut Hill, it starts with half a styrofoam coffee cup snagged on the Belgian blocks. Farther down, a lone, white plastic fork lying beside the trash can at Bredenbeck's ice cream shop. In Mount Airy, the isolated bits of trash become a steadier presence. Empty Gatorade bottles and Budweiser cans tumble in the gutter. Cross into Germantown, the sediment thickens, takes on more assertive colors. Blue plastic Pepsi-Cola crates outside Roula's Pizza. Then a lot filled with rubble and blaze-orange traffic cones. Ruined umbrellas lie on the sidewalk like tortured spiders. Bulging black plastic trash bags loiter on the broken curb outside a laundromat named "The Nicest Place in Town." On Broad Street, a shattered toilet rudely claims the sidewalk. Pages from a pornographic magazine blow up against the cyclone fence of a ballfield in Grays Ferry. On Moyamensing in Pennsport, the street is so littered with napkins and coffee cups and empty snack bags that from a distance, it looks like shag carpet.
Even the fanciest parts of the city are sullied daily. Those black spots on the sidewalk that look like Goth polka dots? Gum. Spit out and ground into the concrete and nearly impossible to remove. More plastic grocery bags than pigeons were flying through Center City and nesting in the budding trees outside Liberty Place.
Switzerland this isn't. But is it fair to compare?
"It's hard to get objective measures of cleanliness or dirtiness of cities that can be compared," says Robert Sampson, a professor of sociology at Harvard University.
Sampson, who has studied urban "disorderliness" and its effect on quality of life, says: "Anyone can point to an area of a city that's dirty. . . . There's certainly more variation within any city than there is between them."
So do you base your assessment of where Philadelphia belongs along the pigsty spectrum on the soggy cigarette butts and newspapers in the puddles at the bottom of the stairs in JFK Plaza? Or on the quaint 500 block of Kauffman Street in Queen Village, where the neighbors spent a recent Saturday tending to their small communal garden?
The eye of the beholder is not objective when it comes to judging urban decay, Sampson says. "Research shows that if you take two neighborhoods with equal or similar disorderliness, on average, the minority neighborhoods will be perceived to be more disorderly."
And expectations differ from city to city. "Some of the most exciting and desirable cities in the world are not characterized by hyper-neatness," Sampson points out. "Urban environments on the cutting edge tend to have a little bit of grit. People are attracted to that authentic, not-perfectly-arranged sort of life."
In a 2006 Center City District survey, 70 percent of respondents said they found Philadelphia's streets to be "clean" or "very clean." (Gratifying, no doubt, to the teal-uniformed crews, who picked up three million gallons of litter off the streets last year.) In contrast, a 2004 study in Europe found that in most countries, fewer than half the residents consider their cities clean.
The problem occurs in the inexact zone where gritty becomes slummy. When the quantity - or quality - of detritus crosses a threshold, it can signal that the neighborhood is out of control. So an occasional broken Snapple bottle and a lottery ticket on the sidewalk are acceptable. A syringe is not.
"I always look on the ground, and when I see a used condom or dime bag, it makes me sad," says Maria Kefalas, a professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University. "I take it as a sign of how broken things are."
Kefalas says trash, shattered windows, abandoned tires and rusty fences all serve as "visual markers" that telegraph trouble. "When people can't control the physical environment, it makes it hard to be hopeful and believe that your actions matter."
Throughout the city, battalions of cleanup crews are engaged in a constant battle against garbage-strewers.
"We have 95 trash cans in this one park alone," says Joseph Lugo, driving an electric cart through Rittenhouse Square to collect garbage. "We come through twice a day, seven days a week."
With so many receptacles, why is the park always trashed? "To tell you the truth," Lugo says, "I don't understand it at all."
Part of the explanation, says Sampson, is human nature. When people own their property, or feel connected to their neighborhood, they engage in an informal social contract to keep it clean.
"I've studied urban poor neighborhoods," he says. "People have high standards. Their houses are neat. But a lot of the dilapidation is outside their control. Landlords not keeping up the property. . . . And also, let's face it, city services are not equal across all neighborhoods."
In a place like Rittenhouse Square, the problem is not socioeconomic. For instance, last week a fashionably dressed young woman was engrossed in a conversation on her cell phone while her dachshund squatted in the grass. She paid no attention.
While some people who ought to feel ownership foul their own nest, more often the problem is caused by passersby. In a park where people gather for lunch, Sampson explains, "you've got an invasion of many people from outside. . . . They're in crowds. They feel it's not hurting anyone, it's not anyone's property, and they can really be rather selfish about it all."
That base instinct is mitigated when the city can stay one step ahead, but trash cans in public spaces are perennially abused, Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson says.
Illegal dumping is another problem. "I've caught people in the act," Tolson says. "Last year, I found a fruit vendor park her truck on Broad Street, unload bags and boxes of debris, and dump it on the sidewalk."
While it would help if people refrained from tossing their potato-chip bags on the ground, says Paul Levy, president and chief executive officer of the Center City District, "sloppy behavior by individuals is a very small part of the equation."
The primary causes of litter, he says, are out of the typical person's control. "A newspaper is delivered to a newsstand and not tied properly, then blows away. A trash can overflows, or a homeless person rummages through one. A dumpster isn't closed properly. A commercial hauler drops things."
When these things happen, the rubbish hits the road. Which is why the beleaguered residents of trashed-out neighborhoods believe that it's not Nagin who should be apologizing, but Philadelphia's leaders, who either lack the will or the competence to keep the city clean. Levy's view, after pioneering the city's privately run consortium dedicated to tidying up, is that more neighborhoods have to chip in - not just with volunteers, but cash.
He refers to the architect Charles Moore's 1965 essay, "You Have to Pay for the Public Life." Unlike Disneyland, Moore observed, real cities are noisy, dirty, crowded and tense. To live in a place as clean and neat as a theme park requires paying someone to do the job. For Philadelphia, Levy says, that may mean more businesses forming funded associations such as the Center City District.
"You have to pay for maintenance," he says. "And it's endless."