Commentaries Health & Environment

Think We Need More Barrels (or Basements)?

(This is the third in a continuing series of “Think we need more barrels?” North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni examines the role of City Hall in exacerbating the neighborhood’s ongoing problem with litter and household trash disposal.)

It’s not the tourists, stupid.

You would not believe what stuff gets tossed away as litter. An Oxycodone receipt from a Hull Street resident. A birth control prescription for a lady on Sheafe Street. And, a two-year old bank statement of a gentleman from Garden Court Street who had $1.43 million socked away in a money market account. Yet, whenever the issue of litter and the illegal disposal of trash arises, a popular culprit is the estimated four million (Yes, that’s right … 4,000,000 according to a Boston Globe editorial, June 29) tourists who annually walk the Freedom Trail. They are a convenient default target since they don’t stick around long enough to defend themselves. Next in line come the student renters, followed closely by young professionals, absentee landlords, trash pickers, bottle collectors, local businesses, garbage and waste haulers, inattentive city workers and, finally, long-time North End residents themselves. By this time, we have run out of digits to point fingers.

Trash Strewn in a North End Doorway

There are grains of truth for each category in the above line-up of suspects. But, what would you think if I told you the fault actually lies with Boston’s Board of Appeals, BRA planners and our elected officials? Please hold your tongue. I will explain. But first, a history lesson. Where do suppose North Enders used to store trash, brooms, shovels, dust pans, rock salt, sand and even bicycles before the first condo conversion or height increase was green lighted for city permits and licenses? All buildings had something called a basement where the water meter and utilities were connected, where seasonally-related household furnishings were stored. There might have been space or a room allocated for wine making or a second kitchen for canning and preserving food, but certainly not apartments where the sun never shined through small windows at sidewalk level. Along came a turn in the economy, and, suddenly, rents began to rise, property values appreciated and developers, speculators and local owners did what came naturally. They wanted to expand upwards, downwards – even outwards in certain instances where shared walkways and passages commonly used by abutting neighbors were suddenly off-limits and privatized.

There was a surge of applications for variances and building permits formerly issued sparingly for hardship cases and the peculiarities of a specific parcel. And, soon enough, owners sought city clearance almost as a right. They pleaded financial difficulties. They claimed that they had done so much for the good of their community. They waved letters of support and petitions bearing the signatures of neighbors and, often, residents who lived nowhere near the site of the proposed development. And then the Board of Appeals convened a perfunctory hearing. Staff from the mayor’s office of neighborhood services and aides from the chambers of city councilors – indeed, sometimes the councilors themselves– would appear in support as a constituency service. If occasionally a distraught abutter had the temerity to appear in opposition, he was on the receiving end of barely-concealed smirks or insincere nods of sympathy. The BRA looked the other way and blithely signed off once the BOA OK was guaranteed. Then the basements were ‘remodeled’ into studio apartments. Back yards were fitted for raised decks. Extra stories were added with vastly expanded head houses that were really penthouses.

So it went. And suddenly there was no place to store the barrels, brooms, shovels, rock salt, sand and bicycles or the smelly garbage, pizza boxes, kitty litter, cardboard cartons and packing materials for consumer goods and household gadgets. Absentee landlords became the rule and not the exception. Transient, short-term renters were never properly oriented by the realtors who scored sign-up commissions nor by the agents of impersonal management companies who shuffled the paperwork nor by the investors who never had any intention of living in their condominiums, let alone the North End itself. And what became of the smelly garbage, pizza boxes, kitty litter, cardboard cartons and packing materials? They were thrown on the sidewalks late on a Friday before a weekend escape to the Cape or the mountains. They were crammed into a hopelessly overflowing litter receptacle affixed to a light pole. They were dumped atop a city park barrel as a feast for nocturnal rodents, scattered by a strong breeze, or reduced to a soggy, sodden mess when exposed to a downpour.

Please name one councilor who has ever spoken about or introduced a proposed ordinance regarding preservation of basement space. Show me one BRA policy statement or opinion that has made reference to this phenomenon. Please identify one North Ender who has been asked to testify at a hearing as a witness to the illegal disposal of trash. Find one welcome brochure given to a tenant of a North End apartment about the duties and responsibilities of being a good neighbor. We can wring our hands or we can start asking questions of prospective developers seeking variances for residential properties. And we can begin to demand that City Hall – the Board of Appeals, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and our elected officials – connect the dots between basement conversions, chronic sidewalk litter and rodent control.

Thomas F. Schiavoni is a North End resident who writes about neighborhood life and city living.

14 Replies to “Think We Need More Barrels (or Basements)?

  1. I agree with Councillor LaMattina, 6am to 9am is time enough for trash to be out in the street !!!!
    Myself and our (ONCE WAS) Clean Streets Committee tried and tried to get this passed~~~to NO AVAIL !!!!
    This time table is not even convenient for my own schedule, but, I will comply !!!! Little sacrifices have to be made by us all !!

        1. Hmmm I don’t think a policy that hurts professions that require working off hours (doctors, nurses, police, fire, etc.) will fly. This will just result in everyone dumping their trash bags in the lobby’s of their buildings and relying on someone else to take it out. We have a couple nurses in our building and I know I don’t want to have to deal with the lobby smelling because they are unable to put out their trash the night before they head to work. Can we store it in your house John?

          1. It just doesn’t work. I work 4am-2pm and live alone. What am I supposed to do with my trash? Give someone else a key to my apartment? Skip work?

  2. Excellent comments and suggestions. The trash situation is most critical during the Summer and high Tourist season. Why couldn’t each street have one of the large belly trasreceptacles likethe ones on Hanover St. This would be a safe way to dispose of garbage that can’t go out between 6am-9am. The extra collection issue would be active from the end of April through October. How much revenue do the Tourists generate? Surely enough, to provide them with clean streets and facilities. Ruff has done an outstanding job of turning an eyesore into a cleanattractive space for dog owners. Yet, they have no trash receptacle. Why? Are the responsible pet owners, who aren’t letting their dogs run on ball fields and parks, where children and adults walk and sit supposed to carry their trash home? I don’t see bottles, cups boxes and feces littering their area. How are they doing it? If we all carried around a large hefty trash bag, it would be filled just walking through the Prado or down any of the side streets. More covered trash receptacles and pick ups are required during the Summer and
    weekends through October.

  3. A few comments:

    -I believe 6-9am was explored previously, but the later pick up time was more expensive and cannot be changed until the contract ends in 2015?

    -I think more trash cans on the smaller streets would go a long way. It would give tourists a place to throw out their trash and make it easier for residents who spot a piece of trash blowing down their street to quickly toss it.

    -We need more frequent street sweeping. At least once per week, if not more.

    -The city needs to crack down on the trash pickers. I know the rats open some of the bags, but a lot of the trash is blowing around because the bags were torn apart for cans.

    -The city also needs to crack down on people who put their trash out in CVS bags, brown paper bags, boxes, etc. If everyone could just use a sturdy kitchen trash bag, it would go a long way. Have a couple weeks of intense fines to get the point across and repeat every few months.

    -When September 1st rolls around, do a better job of explaining how trash works in the North End. Give the new renters a few weeks to figure it out and then start fining heavily in early October to drive the point across.

    -Better rodent prevention

    1. According to the Area A police…there is nothing they can do about the trash pickers. Once you put your trash out on city streets, these people are free to rip open any bag. The solution to the trash pickers is for Boston to get rid of the bottle and can deposits so that there is no financial incentive for these people to go through the trash, Several of us have suggested this since back when Paul Scapicchio was our City Councillor. He did not listen any more than Sal Lamatina does now.

      1. The bottle and can deposits is not a city issue, it’s state-wide….and there’s no way the “green” community would allow for it to be reversed.

        1. Home rule petition? I know it will never get passed the green contingent but that is the only way to stop the trash pickers. They are a clever bunch and will adjust their foraging for cans to 6AM to 9AM. On my street they start at 5PM and then the next crew comes through at 8 or 9 then 11 then 2 or 3 AM and then in the morning. There is one guy who is still ripping through bags when the trash truck is up the street.

  4. Why do you put cans & bottles in the trash?????
    They are supposed to be in the CLEAR recycle bags….this
    would prevent trash pickers from ripping bags open…duh!
    As for the hour changes…how much trash do you people have???
    It gets picked up THREE days a week!
    There isn’t ONE day you can get it to the sidewalk?
    Stop complaining…make an effort to find a solution.

    1. I agree with you that people need to recycle their recyclables (more than just cans & bottles, btw), however that won’t stop the pickers from opening bags in the hope that someone left something. If they open a bag and don’t find anything worth redeeming, do you really think they will go through the trouble of tying it up again?
      And for the hours, leaving a 3 hour window for dropoff is pretty dumb. I think a 12-8 drop time would suffice to help keep the streets cleaner. Many of the old folks who aren’t up after midnight can just drop it in the morning, and people who work late shifts should have enough of a window to make it. This also keeps the trash from getting “disturbed” and/or added to by the idiots coming into the neighborhood for dinner (and the idiots reference is not for everyone, just the dumb people who think it’s funny to litter and leave a mess).

      1. The pickers usually rattle the bag before
        they open them…so..if there are no bottles
        or cans to rattle..they won’t open the bag!
        As for the time window…it’s more about the
        rodents eating through the bags left out than the mess.
        Again…where is the solution??

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