Litter and Poverty

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Thursday, May 05, 2005 City Litter The Boston Globe reports on the ill-fated “'Change Your Attitude" campaign that was initiated in hispanic immigrant areas of East Boston, where litter is apparently a big problem.

Its creators saw it as a bright, well-intentioned idea. An antilittering campaign designed for East Boston's heavily immigrant population: Amusing street mimes, transcending language barriers, would perform in public spaces, grab residents' attention, and help persuade them to stop dropping trash on neighborhood streets.

But an initial proposal that the small group of local artists drafted about the effort described its mission as ''educating Latinos to stop throwing garbage in the city streets." And before creators could revise the language, they were embroiled in a community dispute. What’s this? Asserting that Latinos litter at a higher rate than any other ethnic group? Sounds like racism and ‘negative stereotyping’ to me. Of course, because of such obvious racism, the program was quickly squashed after individuals from the usual ‘citizens groups’ complained. But might, just might, the notion that some immigrant groups litter more than others have some kind of basis in truth?

To the liberal, trash and debris in the inner city is seen as ‘a function of poverty’, a value-less abstraction. It becomes a theoretical entity, a ‘symptom’ of the ‘structural’ qualities of poverty. The key metaphor employed by the liberal in his understanding of the inner city is that of victim. The person who throws trash on the ground is, effectively, a consequence, a cog in a great determinist wheel, someone whisked along by invisible forces beyond their control.

I work in Hartford CT, a city that, according to the 2000 census, is now more than 50% black and hispanic. The high-school drop-out rate is over 50% and the median income is $14,000. The area of the city where I work, a formerly pristine area in the city’s heyday, is a battle zone representative of urban minority life. From where I park my car every day, I must walk past several ‘projects’ (aka Section 8 housing) where hispanics are, by far, the majority constituency. Day and night, people are hanging out of windows, walking around, milling about. Kids, cursing like sailors, run barefoot over needle-and-glass strewn grass, their parents apparently none too concerned.

The sheer amount of trash and litter thrown everywhere is mind-blowing. On the sidewalks, in the grass, in the road, everywhere. Bottles, cans, candy bar wrappers, styrofoam cups, an endless supply of cigarette butts, empty cigarette boxes, etc. On the rare occasions when the trash is cleaned up, it is back the very next day, accumulating at a rate that is way beyond the norm of any area of I’ve ever seen. Before my own eyes, and on a regular basis, I see the active discarding of trash and litter on the streets: the person who simply throws their empty Snapple bottle on the grass next to the sidewalk. Experiencing the phenomenon in question up close, ‘living it’, so to speak, tells me much more about the phenomenon – relays much more valid information – than any Harvard professor could dream of. The littering I speak of cannot be characterized as anything less than sheer contempt and disrespect for basic norms of civility and appropriate behavior.

Another similar ‘litter barometer’ can be found at the base of a major highway’s exit ramps. With respect to the exits that lead to your more ‘urban’ locales, you’ll see what I see every day: from cars that were waiting for the red light to turn green one finds thrown out McDonald’s bags, liquor bottles, beer cans, cigarette ashtray contents, cups, and an endless list of miscellaneous garbage.

It is true that third world nations around the world, relative to first-world nations, rampant littering is the norm. One need only visit (or even look at photographs) to see it: Mexico City, San Jose, Cairo (as bad as any third world capital). I’ve been to Costa Rica and the degree of large-scale littering was radically conspicuous. When I was in Germany some years ago, I walked around Berlin, a wonderful city. As I entered the Turkish quarter, I could not believe the profound change in scenery with respect to sidewalk and roadside litter. I was not ‘looking’ for such a change; the objective difference in character simply clobbers one over the head: the neoconservative as the liberal mugged by reality.

These are the ‘little things’ that matter, the demonstrative representations of value and respect (or lack thereof) that have ripple effects across a society. As such, these are the things that do serve to illustrate the character of an area’s inhabitants. These are the things that demonstrate litter to not be a consequence of poverty, but rather part of a cultural value system which causes and perpetuates poverty.




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