I may have sounded a little desperate in my last column on street sweeping, when I invited the city’s new army of trash blowers to, and I quote: Fire them up. Blast that dust right in my face. Just clean the street.
Thursday morning I was almost eating those words when I found myself standing on Seventh Street in South Philly, in the middle of a tempest of trash. The city’s new street crew was hard at work, using backpack leaf blowers to push a week’s worth of filth from under cars and off curbs into the street, where a mechanical sweeper hoovered it up.
At times, it felt as if you could cross Seventh and not once touch concrete, your feet borne, Christlike, on cheesesteak wrappers, deli napkins, and paper cups. And the dust. My God, the South Philly dust, centuries of it blasted into the air, swirling in great clouds. Old men pulled their undershirts to their noses. Women shielded children’s faces.
“This is stupid!” yelled Chuck McCaffrey, from his garage on Seventh Street. “Get the cars off the street! This dust!”
“The dust!” Joe Tesauro Jr. intoned inside his parents’ tidy house on the 2600 block. It blows under the screen door as the Tesauro family huddles behind windows covered in posters of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother. “Look at it!” he shouted above the din, wiping a finger along the TV stand and showing a dusting of fine brown sediment.
Biblical dust plagues — and my neighborhood’s penchant for the dramatic — aside, the streets actually are getting cleaner in South Philly and across the city. Yes, the dust occasionally inspires near-apocalyptic panic — not to mention rightful fears about what it is we’re blasting into the air, and our lungs. (The street cleaners do stop when they see people coming.) But seeing the ocean of trash get swept away gives you a true perspective on how dirty we’ve let our neighborhoods become.
This pilot, a compromise for an old-fashioned, move-your-car street-sweeping program, is far from perfect in its current incarnation. It’s loud and dusty. And it’s operating, in some cases, during rush hours when residents are walking kids to school or waiting for the bus. “We cannot breathe,” noted Dimhijakim Pausuan, heading downtown for a doctor’s visit.
But everyone I talked to, even Chuck and the Tesauros, applauded the city for making an effort. Some people were downright ecstatic.
“It’s awesome. This is what needs to be done around here,” said Nick Carbone, as his wife, Danika, pushed their 2-year-old, Giavonna, down Seventh in her stroller. “Our block needs it. It’s all dirty.”
The pilot splits South Philly into five routes, with crews hitting one each morning. Five other teams cover other neighborhoods. Citywide, they scoop up seven tons of litter a day, said Faruq Scott, a sanitation assistant administrator. I assumed he meant a month. Then, I called back. No, no, a day.
“We’re trying to change the culture and attitude toward litter,” he said. They’ll test the city’s litter index to see if it’s working.
It’s hard to believe how dirty our streets are until you witness that wake of trash rustled up by the blowers. Sometimes the mechanical sweeper leaves pools of trash behind, but, once the dust settles, it’s an absolute, almost surprising relief to see a cleaner street.
It’s also clear, watching this pilot in action on car-clogged South Philly streets, that moving cars for a street-sweeping program would be a feat. Most neighbors I talked to on Seventh Street said they’d move their cars. Where to is another question.
The pilot must be something that’s improved upon, not abandoned — finding a balance between blowers, new machinery, and moving every car. And the program is creating jobs, 42 in all, so far.
Tyrone Brooks, 54, a thick-shouldered man with a salt-and-pepper beard, worked back point on the Seventh Street crew in his train engineer’s cap. He let me try on his leaf blower. “Prime it up!” he yelled.
The former longshoreman and laborer loves the job, shows up an hour early for his 7 a.m. shift, and lugs the leaf blower for eight hours. “This is an opportunity for us to get a better life for our family,” he said. On Thursday, someone cursed at him from a passing car. He tried to shrug it off.
“Nobody wants to hear that, man. We’re just trying to make the neighborhood look good,” he said. “Look at all that trash back there.” It was hard to argue.