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Neighbors Are Tackling the Trash Amidst COVID-19 Budget Cuts

In Brooklyn, grassroots groups are forming to address the mounting garbage on city streets that has led to increased sightings of rats.
Photo: Emphyrio from Pixabay

Nicole McKay knew she had to take action when the smell of trash from the street started wafting into her apartment.

The lifelong Fort Greene resident saw the rubbish piling up on her local streets and got neighbors together to tackle the issue themselves. Joined by Clinton Hill resident Emese Ilyes, the pair started a litter collection group that spans Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. 

Ilyes, McKay and a group of concerned residents now host monthly meet-ups with the help of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to clean Park Avenue between Navy and Grand streets.

A crew of good samaritans cleaning up Fort Greene. Their group has met four times so far. Photo: Courtesy of Emese Ilyes.
A crew of good samaritans cleaning up Fort Greene. Their group has met four times so far. Photo: Courtesy of Emese Ilyes.

And their group is not alone --neighbors all over Brooklyn have been organizing litter-fighting groups to maintain streets and parks after the City slashed the sanitation department budget by $106 million in June.

As a result, public trash cans have had pickup reduced leaving them overflowing on many street corners, and street cleaning has been reduced to once a week on each side of the street.

"To cut the resource that is maintaining the quality of life in our community is really shortsighted of the city," Ilyes said. 

"We've put fliers around the community for these cleanups. On the day of the cleanup, we meet at 10 a.m.. About 25 to 35 folks show up each time, which amazes me because it's Saturday morning."

Volunteer cleanup groups have popped up all over the Borough, in neighborhoods including Bushwick and Bay Ridge, often facilitated through neighborhood Facebook pages. Several elected officials have also started volunteer cleanups, including Borough President Eric Adams and Councilmember Justin Brannan.

The litter Ilyes and McKay's group cleaned up, under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The litter Ilyes and McKay's group cleaned up, under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Photo: Courtesy of Emese Ilyes.

McKay said the excess trash and rodents in her area exposed the City's gaping inequality, with certain areas being worse affected than others, adding systemic action must be taken.

"That's because the litter and rodent issue was already bad before the budget cuts and pandemic. We see an abundance of garbage under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and very few trash cans near public housing, which are not being emptied," she said. "It's demoralizing and attracting rats."

This month, there have been 710 rodent-sightings in Brooklyn reported to 311. Across the City, sightings increased from less than 1,000 in April to 1,658 in June. 

Recently, Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote a letter to the City with Rep. Adriano Espaillat, calling on the City to deal with overflowing trash cans and increased rat sightings. They said mounds of garbage piling up was hampering small business recovery, due to small businesses' reliance on foot traffic. They outlined recommendations, including allowing businesses to put trash cans in front of stores at their own expense, expanding the Clean Curbs pilot program, deploying more "Big Belly" large trash cans and better supporting pest control.

Anne McDermott, a Prospect Heights resident and stand up comedian, at the Monday morning Prospect Park clean-up. Photo: courtesy of Anne McDermott.
Prospect Heights resident Anne McDermott. Photo: Supplied.

Last week, NYC Parks announced Toss Your Trash, a new campaign addressing excessive trash in parks across the city. The message is simple: Show your park some love and put trash in a bag or can, or take it with you.

Prospect Heights resident Anne McDermott took part in a Prospect Park Alliance effort to clean up the trash on Monday, and also does her own street maintenance in the mornings.

She said she was outraged people were leaving so much litter for others to deal with, but was, "just glad I can take an hour out of my week and be part of the solution."

Miranda Levingston

About the Author: Miranda Levingston

Miranda Levingston is an award-winning reporter and editor passionate about covering the change-makers in her borough.
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