Downtown View: It Takes a Village

December 2, 2011
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That’s what our streetside litter basket has required.

Some readers may remember that in June the city installed a mesh litter basket on the lamp post in front of our house at my request. It was an experiment. Would our sidewalk and tree pit be free of cups, crumpled paper and those little plastic bags of doggy-doo if an appropriate receptacle were available for passers-by?

The answer was a resounding yes. We provided the black trash bags that lined the litter basket and secured the bag with a big rubber band. My husband, not me, has generally emptied the bag every trash pick-up day because he is taller, and it is easier for a taller person to lift out the bag. We agreed it was a small price to pay for cleanliness. For 20 to 30 feet on either side of the litter basket, the sidewalk and the street were mercifully free of litter for the whole summer.

Neighbors became protective of the basket. They helped out, taking turns emptying the basket when we went away. A few times we went out to exchange the full bag for a fresh one and, to our surprise, some unidentified civic-minded neighbor had already done so.

As autumn began, though, things changed.            One Sunday in September we found that someone had shoved in a pizza box too large for the basket, leaving no room for anything else. A few people then deposited their bags of doggie doo on the sidewalk for us to pick up. A few days later we found a large pair of men’s shoes taking up all the room. Then someone stuffed in household trash and a pile of magazines, something that hadn’t happened all summer.

My husband put his foot down. He objected to picking up other people’s mess. He demanded that I call the city and get them to remove the basket. I wanted to try one more time to make the litter basket work. I agreed, however, that people’s bad behavior could be too much for us.

But we learned that people will behave if they know what to do. I tackled the household trash first. The magazines had revealed the address of the culprits who stashed them in the basket. I posted a note on their door and wrote to their landlord explaining what they shouldn’t do with the litter basket. I posted a sign on the litter basket explaining that neighbors, not the city, were emptying the basket, and if users wanted the basket’s convenience, they had to treat it respectfully.

And they did.

Moreover, people left notes in plastic bags thanking us for the litter basket, and leaving their own instructions to other people about how to properly use the basket. We haven’t had a problem since. Impressed by the litter basket users’ good behavior, my husband has agreed that at least for now the basket can stay.

I developed a couple of theories in dealing with the problem. One was that the summer people knew the story about volunteers emptying the litter basket, but new residents moving in in the fall assumed the basket was a municipal service so it was okay to “abuse” the basket, as a former public works official used to put it. I can’t explain why someone would believe that making city workers clean up after them was acceptable behavior, but that seemed to be the case.

Another lesson was the value of signs. After we posted the rules for using the basket, no one has stuffed in household trash or left bags on the sidewalk for us to pick up. It is not that people aren’t slobs—some probably are. But some people just don’t understand what is appropriate behavior. If they are told what it is, they’ll behave.

Another lesson: people are desperate for litter baskets. They want some place other than the sidewalk to throw their cups, doggy-doo bags and crumpled pieces of paper. Despite the vast numbers of residents and tourists on foot, along most of downtown Boston’s residential streets the only trash containers are at playgrounds. A litter basket on a lamp post outside one’s house does clutter up the lamp post. But those doggy-doo bags I see littering the tree pits around the city are worse.

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