Have you ever wondered what, if anything, runs through the mind of a kid who walks down the street jettisoning candy wrappers and soda cans as though he's a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere?
Stephanie Kruel did. At meetings of the Newbold Neighbors Association, she'd watch the local youths treat the Di Silvestro Playground as someone else's problem.
Newbold is a new civic group, covering the seen-it-all red-brick rowhouses between Broad and 18th, Washington and Passyunk in a neighborhood long called Point Breeze. The association has a MySpace page, which touts Newbold as "the new hot 'hood" and says its sign is Capricorn. But that's not Kruel's doing.
More her style is Newbold's first Youth Litter Survey.
She and some other annoyed activists decided to ask 27 kids, ages 6 to 19, about their attitudes toward trash, hoping the playground questionnaire would open a window into underlying issues - how they feel about themselves, whether they think what they do has any impact on those around them. Whether it's possible to change attitudes while cleaning up the neighborhood.
The answers suggest the activists have more than a mess on their hands.
Guns and apple pie
Asked 'What's the most important thing in your life?' one 11-year-old answered "blowing stuff up," "weapons" and "mom" - in that order.
Another, asked how to prevent others from littering in his neighborhood, replied, "kill people." It's "insulting," he wrote.
"So, a lot are involved in gangs," said Kruel, who is 30, and directs community relations for PhillyCarShare. She and her husband, Quentin, are the sort of out-of-towners who arrive thinking they can improve things, God love 'em.
The couple actually chose Philadelphia when they finished grad school at Emory University in Atlanta, and were searching for a walkable city with affordable houses. Culture and higher education were key.
Applying their schooling as city planners, they plotted the characteristics of the nation's metropolitan statistical areas, and then consulted a Places Rated almanac.
Somehow, those rankings never mentioned trash.
Kruel was right in sensing that kids' attitudes about trash reflected something deeper.
In general, she found some hope in the answers the kids gave. (The social scientist in her knows she's three short of having a statistically valid sampling, but it's a revealing survey, nonetheless.) More than half said family was most important to them.
Twenty-four owned up to having littered. And three out of four of those said they never gave it a second thought. In fact, less than half of the group ever thought about what happens to things they throw on the ground.
Of those who did think, one said it "blows somewhere else." Another said it "goes to a different city." A third said prisoners pick it up.
This was what startled Kruel most: The majority of kids said they associated picking up trash with community service - not the sort of volunteering that civic groups do, but the sort that judges order juvenile offenders to perform.
All 10 she interviewed mentioned they had a relative in jail.
When I talked to her last week at PhillyCarShare, she was polishing her report, trying to identify a few achievable goals.
"I guess my conclusion is that for our neighborhood, we need to focus on kids in the Di Silvestro playground and their littering habits," she said. "It seems it's almost insurmountable to launch a larger campaign that would be effective."
As one of the kids polled said, maybe they could post cool anti-littering signs in the park. It's a start.
"They're pretty hopeless, I'd say. Some of them are really smart, you can tell by talking to them. But even the ones who say they have bigger plans for themselves, I can tell they're being dragged down."