Trashin’ the Hood; A Thought Piece on Litter in Urban Space

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August 3, 2017 by Kyle

Growing up in North Philly you quickly realize that there’s a lot of trash around. No doubt Philly has a lot of refuse. Philly has a lot of people and is one of the oldest cities in the US. It is also one of the poorest cities in the US. Any big city with a condensed population will produce trash of all kinds. On Tuesdays in West Oak Lane, the neighborhood looks like the 1986 Philadelphia Trash Strike. You expect trash in West Oak Lane on Tuesday but how about Wednesday through Monday?

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Walk the community and you will see wrappers, popsicle sticks, newspapers and every kind of disposable on the street, sidewalk and gathered at gates or fences throughout the community. If you live here you might get familiar with seeing trash. If you are visiting you ask the question…”why?” Well your initial response to that question may not be a correct analysis or it may not tell the whole story. As a Philadelphian I can offer my observations.

The ubiquitous corner stores within low-income neighborhoods are a production line for street litter. The presence of processed food is usually wrapped in a plastic packaging—everyone knows that this kind of trash will be around until the next millennium. Much of the food out of these establishments is harmful to human health. There is not only an environmental, but also a health impact due to the location of these establishments within impoverished communities.

The city of Philadelphia has attempted to address the lack of trashcans at key locations, but with a city this size, the presence of public receptacles remains insufficient. Along the Ogontz Avenue business strip at one time there was an insufficient number of trashcans for the foot traffic, but that no longer exist. The frequency of trash removal may be insufficient for a neighborhood with the capacity of West Oak Lane, but as of late, the track record of sanitation removal has been on point. It should be stated that Philadelphia is a progressive city when it comes to recycling and environmental stewardship.[1] The unique nature of Philly neighborhoods cannot be ignored when discussing an issue like trash. In neighborhoods like West Oak Lane you learn very quickly that policies are established block-by-block and determined by long standing traditions developed based on the immediate needs of residents.

There are communities within the city where residents are transient and there’s a higher rate of renters versus homeowners. A 2014 Pew Charitable Trust study has documented that for the Germantown East (West Oak Lane) zip code 19138 the percentage of homeowners is among the highest in Philadelphia at 70%.[2] This is in direct contrast to the citywide homeownership as of 2012, which declined to 52.2%.  Philadelphia homeownership rates have declined from the year 2000 to 2012 by 7.1%. [3] The question of whether there is a direct connection between homeownership and the present of litter on sidewalks and streets in the city remains to be verified. The presence of vacant housing seems to contribute to blight in the form of graffiti, contractor dumping and a general lack of home maintenance according to observations made by the Pew study.[4]  A brief drive through certain North Philly neighborhoods will convince anyone that empty lots are reservoirs for weeds and debris of all kinds.

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Anyone looking to push past a surface look at urban communities will realize that there are tons of homeowners that value a clean community. There are residents sweeping, pulling weeds and calling municipal representatives to clean up vacant lots, remove old tires and to cover up graffiti. The density and economic diversity of a community can make it extremely difficult to maintain order in the midst of a sea of ambivalence.

A first hand observation of places where poverty exists will reveal the presence of all kinds of refuse and debris. There are places in the world where the lack of infrastructure is a breeding grounds for trash and disease. Within some third world countries impoverished communities exist next to large areas where humans place toxic and hazardous trash— (for many residents these places are a source of food and shelter). It may come as a surprise, but the reality is that in first world countries, third world environments do exist. Where there is poverty there is usually the presence of trash and refuse.

Consider the presence of toxic waste close to places where natural resources are mined to provide products to various markets around the world. These places are forgotten and to call them the “hood” would be an upgrade.  Nevertheless, human waste must go somewhere and for many it is right next door. So the question, “Why Is There So Much Trash in Urban Neighborhoods?” reveals something unique about poverty.

A community littered with waste is symptomatic of a much deeper issue. Trash on the street is much more than just lazy people who refuse to sweep up in front of their door or simply don’t take pride in their community. I would add that it is more than a municipality issue as well. The reality is that trash and debris within communities reveal a different set of priorities for many households. The rearranged priorities means that survival is so much more important than things like renewable energy or making sure that a soda can is properly placed in the trash receptacle.

In my line of work trash represents an opportunity to serve someone else. Furthermore, stewardship is about caring for the space God allows us to occupy on earth. A great deal of attention has been given to global issues related to waste and non-renewables, but little has been given to the inner city issues of waste. This issue is very visible and reveals something about the quality of life within that particular community.

The people of God within these locations can work towards creating a community of contrast. If churches recognize and take advantage of the low hanging fruit of environmental stewardship, there remains the possibility of creating a contrast community. This would hopefully go beyond a one-time event where a visiting mission team from Alabama scrapes out weeds from a sidewalk crack or picks up grease stained paper plates as a part of a summer mission project. What I am talking about is an ongoing commitment to addressing both surface and systemic issues within a neighborhood. Trash removal does not address the hopelessness that allows someone to devalue their community and themselves by throwing trash on the ground in their community.

In cities like Philadelphia a cultural change is needed, but clean streets are not the primary issue. The church can work towards establishing kingdom presence: a contrast community. Michael W. Goheen in his book, Light To The Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story provides some characteristics of a contrast community. One proposed characteristic suggests, “A contrast community would be a community of justice in a world of economic and ecological injustice.” he goes on to explain, “The people of God living in God’s new world of justice and shalom cannot be a people oblivious to these problems, but must seek ways of embodying and seeking justice in keeping with the gospel.”[5]

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Goheen quotes C. J. Miller, author of  Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, describes the connection between the church and community, “, when a church becomes deeply involved in the needs of its neighborhood, it changes both the church and the attitude of the local community.”[6]  It must be added that the church within a community has a unique message that can change the mindset and culture or given context. What does a church with a commitment to stewarding its surrounding look like? This church goes beyond cleaning church property and goes down the block cleaning sidewalks and cutting its neighbor’s bushes. The pre-discipleship of a community is possible through sustained, tangible gospel engagement with a broom, shovel and weed killer. The key is consistency with any kind of service. The church does not stop here, but realizes that its mission is tied up in transformation.

In regards to systemic issues that contribute to poverty, one cannot deny the intentional formation of pockets of poverty in most American communities. Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” lays out an irrefutable case for how the US Government designated African Americans to substandard housing. In the chapter, Suppressed Incomes, he extrapolates how Federal policy intentionally limited the incomes of Blacks. Not only did the Federal government intentionally limit incomes but also, through policy, created ghettos that ensured that generations of African Americans would be cut off from prosperity.[7]

The reality is that poverty has an adverse impact on those trapped in poverty. This 2014 study highlights the impact of poverty on cognitive development and functioning.  Consider the following statement,

In addition to situational stress triggering emotional reactions that can hijack decision making, the constant struggle to make ends meet, deal with the pressures of social bias, and protect against trauma also places extraordinary demands on cognitive bandwidth. Consequently, available brain capacity for impulse control, memory, and judgment is taxed to the limit. This so called “bandwidth tax” imposed by ever-present preoccupation, fear, and worry causes significant compromises in the overall quality of decision making by the poor for whom every decision is that much more critical (Vohs, 2013 ) (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir and Zhao, 2013).[8]

The article postulates that the stress of poverty rearranges the neurological pathways in the brain and as stated previously the goals of those in poverty differs from those within more financially stable environments.[9] As stated previously the priorities of the poor are different from the economically stable and the presence of trash reflects a symptom. My hope is that we would all consider why a 16 year old might toss a bottle on the ground in light of what he sees modeled as well as his own trauma living in certain conditions. A key is to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of poverty. When we start and end with trash we miss out on the real problem latent below the surface within these communities.  These communities are at the breaking point and in real need of people that believe in addressing core issues. Is there healing for those whose minds have been rearranged by the stress of life lived on the margins?

As a member of the church of Jesus Christ there is relevance to my proximity to the issue of trash, debris and waste. (John 1:14) Being placed into a community struggling with litter and waste obligates me to find a solution or address the problem through what I understand about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Are there public demands of the gospel? If a Christian picks up a piece of paper off the street ,does it matter in the kingdom of God?  If a Christian refused to purchase a certain brand of cell phone because of their environmental practices in foreign countries, does it matter in the kingdom of God? If a Christian engages in the uncomfortable work of addressing systemic issues that lead to waste being associated around poverty, does it matter in the kingdom of God? If Jesus is Lord of all, does that include abandoned lots where drug needles accumulate and present an ever-present danger to the young and vulnerable?

Are we able to address the immediate need for cleanliness while at the same time addressing the long-term struggle for equality and justice? I mean destroying the faulty thinking behind littering in your own community while at the same time destroying the systems that create poverty. As Christ teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) is the goal and our next steps include prayer and discerning how to get there.

[1]Retrieved from https://www.philadelphiastreets.com/images/uploads/resource_library/Philadelphia_Streets_Department_Regulations_Governing_Municipal_and_Private_Collection_or_refuse.pdf.

[2]http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2014/07/09/homeownership-in-philadelphia-on-the-decline

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid., 3. Traditionally, homeownership also has been seen as good for communities, on the theory that people who have physical and financial stakes in a neighborhood or city are more likely to be invested in its overall well-being. They also tend to remain in their neighborhoods longer, providing stability and social connections. In a Pew poll conducted in the summer of 2013, 75 percent of homeowners said they had been in the same neighborhood for more than 10 years, compared with 35 percent of renters.37”

[5] Goheen, M. W. (2011). A light to the nations: the missional church and the biblical story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 209        

[6] Ibid., 217

[7] Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. W W Norton & Co Inc. 153-154.

[8] Babcock, E. (n.d.). Using brain science to design new pathways out of poverty. Retrieved August 3, 2017, from http://s3.amazonaws.com/empath-website/pdf/Research-UsingBrainScienceDesignPathwaysPoverty-0114.pdf. 5

[9] Ibid., “Emerging science indicates the inherent stress of living in poverty has the capacity to negatively impact the decision making processes involved in problem-solving, goal-setting, and goal attainment. The prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area of the brain that is associated with many of the analytic processes necessary to solve problems, set goals, and optimally execute chosen strategies – works in tandem with the limbic system, which processes and triggers emotional reactions to environmental stimuli. This partnership works in an individual’s favor when the limbic brain registers a strong desire and signals this to the prefrontal cortex. The activated prefrontal cortex applies itself to attaining the goal or solving the problem. However, when the limbic brain is overactive and sending out too many powerful signals of desire, stress, or fear, the prefrontal brain can get swamped and the wave of emotion can drown out clear focus and judgment (Casey et al., 2011).”

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