Adi Talwar

To walk through the tunnel that leads to the subway entrance at Bedford Park Boulevard under the Grand Concourse is to tread a carpet of trash.

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This article was reported by members of the City Limits Fall 2016 Bronx Investigative Internship Program. Click here to see other journalism produced by that initiative.
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New York City’s Sanitation police were out recently on Parkside Place, a steep street of a few blocks’ length that climbs and then descends a ridge parallel to Webster Avenue in the Norwood section of the Bronx. The apartment building on the corner of 207th Street had failed to keep up with the litter dropped by passersby and driven by the wind. Black plastic bags wound around the bare branches of the bushes out front and plastic snack wrappers were whipping around the entrance way. It’s the kind of condition a private landlord might see a stiff fine for permitting.

But just down Parkside Place, for years and years, stood an empty lot forested with weed trees whose fence and sidewalk were a small-scale dump that seemingly never attracted public action. A few blocks south, a triangle nestled between a nursing home parking lot and the Metro North tracks along Bedford Park Boulevard has long been layered with refuse. West of there the tunnel by which the Boulevard passes under the Grand Concourse has been carpeted by garbage for as long as anyone can remember. Further south, just off the Grand Concourse, the sidewalk between Cardinal Hayes High School and the Concourse West schools complex is nearly always plastered with trash. And several blocks east—down the block from the shiny new hotel and eateries that have popped up on 149th Street—is a litter-ringed lot that the signs say belongs to the NYPD.

These are familiar scenes to Bronx residents: Areas where litter is not an occasional problem but a permanent condition and where each piece of trash seems to invite even more garbage. Unlike the overflowing trash buckets that the New York Times reported earlier this week as a symptom of a growing population, these litter hotspots feel like longstanding features of the borough’s geography.

Vacant, privately-owned lots and empty buildings are part of the problem. A survey this fall by members of the City Limits Bronx investigative internship program, however, found that some of the most littered places are around schools, playgrounds and parks: Melrose playground on Courtlandt Avenue between East 154th Street and East 155th Street is known for its litter. Then there are those pieces of the borough’s map that seem to belong to nobody: triangles of territory bracketed by highways and elevated subway stanchions, the areas under overpasses and overlooking railroad tracks. They are magnets for bags, bottles and butts.

Bronxites are not inured to the problem, at least when it comes to private spaces. “The surrounding area really smells of spoiled food everywhere,” said a man standing outside a restaurant on 149th in December. “It does not even give me the motivation to buy some food in this store. The owners need to fix this.”

Later that day, an owner pled his case. “It’s not like I do not clean,” he said. “Every morning, I clean my place and all around the place. But one to two hours later, it is messy again. People are just ignorant and don’t care about the environment.”

Whether or not store owners and property owners are responsible for litter conditions, at least they can be on hand to do something about it. They can also be goaded into action. When City Limits contacted the New York Botanical Garden to ask about that littered sliver near the Metro North (which belongs to them) a spokesperson promised to clean it. And that lot on Parkside Place was finally cleaned up last month when a developer began building a multistory residential building.

That’s not always the case with public locations. The NYC DOT didn’t respond to a query about who was responsible for the litter condition on Kingsbridge Road.

However, the Department of Sanitation appears to have stepped up its efforts to fight litter. The number of citations for dirty sidewalks jumped 30 percent last fiscal year, which was already 25 percent higher than the year before. DSNY says it received 2,700 requests to clean vacant lots and cleaned more than 3,600 of them.

“It’s illegal to throw litter or garbage onto streets or other public spaces – or to throw garbage out of a building or window,” reads the DSNY website. “Business owners cannot direct or allow their employees to litter or illegally sweep. People caught littering may be issued a summons. Report streets and sidewalks with chronic littering, and the City will respond to recurring issues. You can also report litter, garbage or debris on highways. Property owners are responsible for cleaning litter from public areas next to their property – even if a chronic littering report has been filed.”

Punishments for littering in New York City range from $50 to $250 and up to 10 days in jail. Five years ago a petition sought to increase those fines and failed to attract more than 70 signatories. Stiffer fines for private owners would do nothing to address the trash problems of the commons.

The city’s 311 website offers a trio of tools for reporting garbage conditions—one for dirty sidewalks, another for loose trash and a third for “highway litter.”

According to records found at OpenDataNYC, from 2010 through last year the ramp at Randall Avenue to I-295 received the most complaints: 19.

Top spots for Highway Litter complaints in the Bronx

If you see a litter hotspot that doesn’t seem to fit into the categories on which 311 accepts reports, let us know!


with Jarrett Murphy