Bostonians complained about it in the 1920s. We still complain about it. It’s so common and yet so difficult to solve. Maybe new Mayor Marty Walsh’s team can put the matter to rest.

We’re talking trash.

Boston is dirty compared to other American and European cities. “We moved into the city nine years ago,” said one resident, “but we have been in Massachusetts for 36 years, and I cannot remember a time when we didn’t think Boston was dirty.”

They only place I’ve been that had more trash strewn about than my home town was Kolkata (Calcutta).

One way to address the problem would be to ask why Boston continues to be dirty, and attack the reasons. I asked some downtown Bostonians—Joan, Jane, Colin and Diane—why they thought we have problems other cities don’t.

Bostonians lack pride in their surroundings, they said. Absentee landlords feel little stake in the community so they eke all the money they can out of their property and don’t convey rules to tenants or clean the sidewalk in front. Students and short-term renters don’t put trash out properly or at the right times. Shopkeepers don’t sweep in front of their businesses. “In European cities shop owners are out every morning cleaning the area in front of their property,” said Jane.

Trash sits too long on the street. Charlestown has pickup only one day a week, but trash is collected in other downtown neighborhoods two or three times a week. On Beacon Hill and in the North End trash can be put out at 5 p.m. and won’t get picked up until after 7 a.m. the next morning. That’s at least 14 hours three times a week that trash bags can be rifled by pickers, torn by rats, and backed over by cars too close to the curb.

Except for the Back Bay and the South End, which have alleys that hold big bins, most of the rest of downtown uses plastic bags. Irresponsible residents don’t use heavy enough bags, so they are easily broken into by vermin or trash pickers, or they blow around.

A dearth of trash bins compounds the problem. Boston is a walking city. Tourists are all over our neighborhoods looking at the sights, but unless they are on a commercial street, they won’t find a bin in which to throw their trash.

This problem occurs in front of some buildings with sidewalk smokers who throw butts on the ground.

Irresponsible dog owners are to blame too. Even if they pick up after their dogs, too many leave the bags in a tree pit for someone else to deal with. Trash bins in the residential neighborhoods would address this problem too.

Surveys about how to solve those problems have been inconclusive. North End residents rejected replacing a trash pickup with a recycling day. On Beacon Hill, two-thirds of the residents felt it would make the neighborhood cleaner, but the Beacon Hill Civic Association board was split 50-50, said civic association president Keeta Gilmore.

Solutions on which neighborhoods agree: Add another day of recycling pickup no matter what. And bins along residential streets would help.

But a real solution in some neighborhoods would be to reduce the hours residents could set trash out in Bay Village, the North End and Beacon Hill to mornings only, between 6 and 9 a.m., when the trash trucks would start their rounds. This would keep trash off the sidewalk at night when the rats are out and would reduce the time trash sits outside to usually less than six hours a day. It would make setting out trash convenient for residents walking to work.

The city renegotiates its contracts with trash haulers in 2014, and a new mayor and his staff could satisfy many residents with such a plan.

Meanwhile, Colin, who has moved back to Boston after many years in other cities, has an outlook that might hearten downtown residents. As bad as the trash problem in Boston is now, he said, Boston is much cleaner than when he lived here before.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Fines, signs and most of all enforcement! Less talk and more pro-active attention to this matter. Oh! And did I mention enforcement?!

  2. We need more trash barrels in the north end! Responsible dog owners will walk for sometimes three or four blocks to get to a trash can – irresponsible ones won’t make that effort. Responsible tourists on an off street don’t know where any trash cans are, so they just put trash on top of a garage bag to blow around in the wind – or in a doorway to a building or on top of an overflowing trash can, etc. We need at least ten more trash cans in this neighborhood – it would solve a lot of the issues we have here. Most people really want to put their trash in a can – but we make it too hard for them. We also need the city to empty the barrels often enough – especially on busy weekends, parades, feasts, etc. l would love seeing Boston cleaner. I think it would help keep the families in the city as well.

    • I’m not sure why we keep the thumbs up and thumb down features. I could post “The sky is blue.”….and some people would click thumbs down.

      • The thumbs up/down was originally supposed to be a way to avoid simple “I agree / disagree” type comments. I go back and forth as to whether it is value added. Maybe a poll is in order!

    • I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN THE NORTH END. I RECALL AN ARTICLE IN THE BOSTON RECORD NEWSPAPER, ABOUT 1938 T0 1940, THAT QUOTED A SURVEY THAT FOUND THE NORTH END THE CLEANEST AND MOST SANITARY NEIGHBORHOOD IN BOSTON. THAT ARTICLE HAS BEEN IN MY MEMORY ALL THESE YEARS. IT MADE ME PROUD AND STILL MAKES ME PROUD, ALTHOUGH I NOW LIVE IN THE WEST. I HAVE BEEN RECEIVING BOSTON NEWS, VIA THE NORTHENDWATERFRONT NEWS LETTER FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS.

  3. I disagree and am actually of the opinion that Boston far cleanlier than it was 10 years ago and would take the podium over many other major US, European and South American cities. We can always strive for better; a few more trash barrels and services for the homeless would go a long way but then again, people who wish their city was as sparkly as the suburbs would probably still complain.

  4. As far as street beggars — Boston doesn’t even come close to the most. San Francisco comes to mind for that. But anyway. I noticed when I went to Italy last year that the city of Florence now has centralized locations with steel compacting trash bins. No more trash bags on the street. Something like that should be studied. If they can do it so can we.

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