(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.
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.