Philadelphia’s streets are dirty. That’s not new. For decades the city was known as Filthadelphia. After all, Philadelphia is the only major city in the United States without a comprehensive street-sweeping program. But since mid March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, things have been even worse: Garbage and recycling collection has been severely disrupted, leaving piles of trash on sidewalks for days — and threatening the quality of life as well as the health of city residents.
Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams explained in an op-ed in The Inquirer that the delay in trash pickup is due to a combination of workforce shortage because of COVID-19 illnesses and related quarantine requirements and an increase of 25% to 50% in trash tonnage compared with last year. According to the union that represents the 1,100 predominantly Black municipal sanitation workers, at least 100 tested positive for coronavirus. (Since the early days of the crisis the Kenney administration has been refusing to disclose how many city workers have tested positive.)
Councilmember Brian O’Neill suggested that workers are letting trash accumulate to pressure the city into giving them hazard pay for working during the pandemic — and that Mayor Jim Kenney should hire nonunion labor as part of his powers in an emergency. The union has denied this and maintains union-busting is not the solution.
For months sanitation workers have been expressing their fears of showing up to work, begging for hazard pay and more personal protective equipment. In early June, sanitation workers protested for safer working conditions.
Unlike other urban problems like gun violence, the overdose crisis, and even illegal fireworks, this problem is particular to Philadelphia.
During the first three weeks of July, while Philadelphia residents made more than 7,500 calls to 311 to complain that their trash was not being picked up — 3.5 times the number of calls in the same period last year — residents in other cities did not see a basic government function come to a halt.
During the 1970s, as federal funding to the city started to dry up, Mayor Frank Rizzo allowed government services like street cleaning to deteriorate. The decline continued and was cemented in 2009 when regular street sweeping ended in Philadelphia — a victory for car owners who didn’t want to move their vehicles.
Cleaning streets was a major part of Kenney’s run for mayor in 2015. In his first term, the administration conducted a street-sweeping pilot, which provided the shocking result that cleaning streets leads to cleaner streets. But the celebration was short-lived. The city used leaf-blower-like devices that are banned in other cities because of noise and their impact on air quality. And after spending $2.7 million on the street-sweeping trucks in 2019, it realized that many streets are too narrow for them to fit. The city eventually abandoned the method.
In his second inauguration speech, Kenney announced that by the end of his tenure as mayor there would be citywide street sweeping in Philadelphia — “Yes, you heard that right, every neighborhood, which will even require folks to move their cars” — a plan that has since been upended by the coronavirus-related budget shortfalls.
Philadelphians should have to move their cars to facilitate street sweeping, but Kenney can’t hide behind that excuse to explain the inability of the city to execute one of its most basic functions: Get the damn trash picked up.
Philly’s dirty streets challenge the core of the bargain between residents and government — the former pays taxes, the latter provides basic services. Isn’t the theory behind requiring nonresident workers to pay the wage tax is that they enjoy Philadelphia’s pristine streets?