Why Is Philly So Filthy?

From Chestnut Street to Fishtown—how the city's trash moved to a different zip code.

Last fall, as it has for the past three years, Philadelphia made Travel and Leisure magazine’s list of America’s dirtiest cities.  Philly came in sixth in 2012, an improvement of four points over our number-two ranking the year before. Apparently, the editors feel we are getting cleaner here—which tells me they didn’t spend much time in my neighborhood, where on most days you’re never more than two steps away from a piece of something someone else discarded.

As I’ve shared here before, I live on the border of Kensington and Fishtown, in a hardscrabble little enclave of working-class whites where, for generations, pride in a common heritage was trumped only by pride in the street (and street corner) where you grew up. To find that pride today, you have to dig pretty deep—through layers of newspaper, empty potato chip bags and the deflated cartons of Arctic Splash iced tea that are so popular here. But don’t think I’m picking on Kensington. Travel around the city and you can see the same shameful scenario playing out in residential neighborhoods south, west and north of the tourist districts of Center City—where uniformed crews and roving “Green Machines” keep the streets relatively free of trash.  Of course, the City of Brotherly Love is no stranger to refuse. We earned the moniker “Filthadelphia” long ago for our network of litter-strewn streets. But anyone old enough to remember when Chestnut Street was a haven of low-rent arcades and movie theaters, and the best restaurant on Walnut Street was Rib-It knows that for the most part the name applied to our pre-revival downtown area. As Center City grew up, the trash moved to a different zip code.

To be fair, the city has had some success over the past couple years cleaning up its abandoned lots and beautifying sections of town once littered with detritus and consumed by overgrowth. Since 2008, the Nutter administration has sponsored Philly Spring Cleanup, which, once a year, rallies thousands of volunteers to join in a one-day bonanza of shoveling, raking, sifting and scooping that by one account has removed more than 2.5 million pounds of garbage from our communities since 2010. On a recent visit to Temple University, I was heartened to see the rows of vacant buildings on Norris Street have been replaced by fenced-in pastures of verdant grass.

That’s all great for abandoned lots and garbage-laden parks; but we shouldn’t have to rely on the government to keep our own sidewalks clean. After all, we are not communists (hat tip to Don Barzini). Unfortunately, with the exception of a few old timers—and the petite-bourgeois interlopers, myself included, who rode into Philly’s fringe neighborhoods on the coattails of gentrification—the sight of cast-off paper goods and empty soda cans doesn’t seem to bother too many people anymore.

The problem is most acute in low-income areas, but it is not a simple function of poverty. A propensity for filth does not necessarily increase as income declines. Growing up, I spent a lot of time on my grandmother’s tiny South Philadelphia block, where, once a month in summer, the neighbors would open up a fire hydrant and literally wash the street with brooms and detergent. That’s where their kids played, after all. I have early memories of my grandmother maneuvering the tiny alley behind her house ripping out tall weeds, or stooped over her front steps with a can of Comet and a scouring pad scrubbing away the scuff marks until the marble showed white as new. She and her neighbors were definitely not flush. But there’s a difference between being poor, which refers to circumstances, and being impoverished, which infects the soul as much as the pocketbook. People like the old-timers on my grandmother’s street may have been strapped, working their fingers to the bone just to make ends meet, but they were not impoverished. Their homes were their castles, and the street in front of them was their kingdom.

Sadly, many poor and working-class people seem to have lost this sense of ownership in their communities—a dangerous first step toward poverty of spirit. There is no shortage of articles and books attempting to explain what went wrong (in his 2012 book Coming Apart, Charles Murray even shines a light on Fishtown). Murray blames social safety-net programs and cultural factors like falling marriage rates and church attendance, which, he says, have precipitated a decline in social cohesion. These are all legitimate factors, but they are symptoms of the problem, not its cause. Institutions can only function optimally in environments that foster their success. Remove the glue that holds them together, and eventually they fall apart.

So what happened? It started with deindustrialization, which led to more mobility and the end of stable, multi-generational communities; how many of us even know our neighbors anymore, let alone their parents? When’s the last time you were in one of their homes? A bunch of people who don’t know each other are much less likely to wash the street together than a group of friends. The decline of industry also led to diminished incomes and a fall in home ownership. Studies have shown a direct correlation between home ownership and civic engagement. With more renters around, there are fewer people with an invested interest in the neighborhood.

But economics is only part of the problem. The technological revolution has propelled the focus of our lives inward. We’re more alienated socially than ever before and less concerned with the lives of the people around us. Most of the time we walk around with blinders on, focused on our own shrinking slice of the world. I know I am part of the problem. I may pick up a piece of trash that I see a neighbor’s kid drop, but I stop short of telling him he shouldn’t litter. I’m not sure it would matter anyway. Communities rise and fall organically—you can’t manufacture neighborhood pride. But if everyone would just agree to keep their own little kingdom clean, the city would be a much nicer place to be.