The Wendover Street garbage heap started to get on my last nerve when I noticed the distinctive tracks left in the snow by the colony of rats that had taken up residency nearby.
Wendover is the shittiest looking street in one of Pittsburgh’s nicest neighborhoods. Centrally located in Squirrel Hill South, just a few blocks away from the corner of Forbes and Murray, it’s 15 apartment buildings [one abandoned] and two detached homes.
Wendover would be a lovely street – like all the other streets around here – were it not for the poor management of the waste generated by its residents. My wife and I tried, roughly weekly, to pick up what we could, but could not turn the tide of torn-open garbage bags. It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by a combination of factors:
- Too many apartments using too few waste bins
- Rental property management companies that have little day-to-day contact with the street
- An ill-informed local population of students and short-term residents
- As a result of that transience, no particular interest on the part of local government and politicians.
The trash heap is the consequence of nearly everyone on the street assuming that a Dumpster and several trash and recycling bins set out near the corner of Wendover and Kamin streets are for public use, when they are actually for the exclusive use of the residents of the two dozen or so apartments. I count myself among those who unwittingly added to the problem.
I had never heard of private residential trash and recycling collection before. Back in my hometown of Montreal, trash, recycling and compost were picked up every week on the same day. I naturally assumed the collection across the street served everyone.
When I noticed the city was giving out those new blue recycling bins last year, I contacted my landlady, who told me to contact the city, who in turn told me to get back to my landlady.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this back and forth buck-passing was going to become a common enough feature of my exchanges with the city in my quest to get rid of the giant heap of garbage that had rapidly become a source of rat food.
Here’s a rough timeline of my quest to look out on a clean street and the resulting journey into the local bureaucracy that challenged my own civic consciousness.
Late January 2022
An older woman who lives a few doors down starts collecting trash. I am touched: This is what I needed to see, people taking the initiative and getting the job done all by themselves.
“This woman must be in her 70s and she’s out collecting the trash,” I think to myself. She is making a difference in her community, and I am not. I feel simultaneously inspired and ashamed: Why wasn’t I doing this, too?
My feelings of inspiration and shame evaporated soon after when, watching the septuagenarian from my window, I noticed that she wasn’t collecting the trash for disposal, but instead was dumping it off in front of the building around the corner. Thanks to the wind, she was in effect spreading the trash heap all over the street.
I grabbed my coat and my keys and ran out and yell-asked her what she was doing. “Nothing! Nothing!” she replied like a toddler caught giving herself a haircut.
“Why aren’t you putting the garbage back in the Dumpster?” I asked.
“They are making a mess of my street!” she unironically protested.
“So are you!” I replied. For some reason, that made her smile. She said she would call the city and thanked me for my interest.
I decided I needed to make the trash heap my own problem.
Jan. 28, 2022
The Fern Hollow Bridge has just collapsed. Less than 2 miles away from my second-floor perch looking out on the corner of Kamin and Wendover, I notice a city employee taking some photos of the trash heap. I rush out to meet him and realize en route that I have never been so excited to see a representative of the city’s inspection office before.
“Are you here about the trash heap?” I ask with unbridled enthusiasm.
He looks at me like I have two heads: “No, I’m here for something else, but let me ask you, do you know which buildings this Dumpster and these bins serve?”
I was pretty sure I did. Wendover is plagued by confusion about who gets their trash and recycling picked up by the city and who gets private collection.
We get to talking and he takes more photos and explains that there is far more trash than the available receptacles can accommodate, an astute observation he likely deduces from the garbage all over the street.
I tell him how the bins have come to be used by nearly everyone. He is helpful, if annoyed, and explains how I can go about filing complaints through various online portals and what I can expect in terms of a response.
Following my complaint through the city’s system, the landlady has given every single unit in my building its own trash and recycling bin. I had also asked that she put up a sign indicating garbage days, but was told that this was the tenants’ responsibility, not hers. OK.
The trash heap remains, driving me to ask the Allegheny County Health Department to deal with the rats. I also decide to bring that to the attention of my city council office. I add a request to install some clearer street signage to indicate Wendover is a one-way street and not the multi-lane thoroughfare that some devil-may-care Yinzers seem to think it is. There is a bit of pleasant back and forth and many reminders to be patient.
I ask if they can send someone from environmental services to clean up the mess, but am reminded that private buildings of six or more units need to have private collection. This isn’t the issue on Wendover. The problem is that there isn’t enough Dumpster volume for the number of people living in the buildings, and everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to think it was a public dump. I start sending the council office photos of the trash heap and various vehicles – including one with city markings – speeding the wrong way down the street.
A shiny new “No Right Turn” sign goes up. My wife is relieved my obsession is bearing fruit. “You do have paid work you could be doing,” she reminds me.
A few days after April 11
Another city inspector takes some more photos to document the mess. I ask him if I should just go out and buy garbage and recycling bins from the hardware store and put up a sign next to them explaining what goes where and when it will be picked up. He cautions me not to. “It’s not just that you’re going out of pocket on something you shouldn’t have to buy,” he says, adding, “you can’t put something of yours on their property.”
I awaken to discover a brand new Dumpster has been delivered to the trash heap, this one with closing lids. I am elated – closing lids! Not only that but the property owner of the building across the street has cleaned up the litter. Sure, the new Dumpster was smaller than the old one, but still, I honestly feel like we are making some progress. I feel so alive!
Later that day, though, a private waste management company throws two of three trash bins into the back of its trash compactor. We’re now down to one undersized Dumpster and one remaining bin that says ‘recycling’ on it but is often used for trash.
Just 20 minutes after that, a city employee with environmental services comes by, picks up the trash and recyclables left strewn about on the ground and then tosses the remaining bin up onto the lawn behind the Dumpster.
A day later, there is a sign behind the Dumpster saying “No dumping” and “Area under surveillance.” There is, as yet, no security system – that comes several weeks later – but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say. I also notice a handyman is now making regular trips to the trash heap, carting excess garbage away in the back of his minivan.
A neighbor and his young son spend the morning picking up every single bit of litter. The street is spotless for the first time in as long as I’ve lived here.
The trash heap has returned. The Dumpster is completely overwhelmed, refuse is strewn all over the street and it’s as though the clean-up from the day before hadn’t even occurred.
The handyman returns and puts the garbage in his minivan.
May 3 or 4
Either someone or some remarkably powerful gust of wind has ripped the lids off the Dumpster. Now its capacity is limited only by gravity and wind gusts. It quickly fills up and spills over.
The last remaining recycling bin used for trash collection disappears. The garbage pile has far less capacity than when I began my crusade to bring some kind of order to Wendover Street. The trash pile appears and disappears with greater frequency, as do the rats, which have not yet been dealt with. I can hear them well into the night, chewing through the garbage bags left at the curb on our side. Trash falls out of the tattered bags and onto the street.
I have given this my best shot and I need to end this little obsessive crusade. I have accepted a partial defeat — my intervention resulted in a smaller Dumpster and the destruction of the other bins, which means less trash and recycling capacity for the street. My building has its own trash and recycling bins, so there’s a partial victory, but as my wife so frequently reminds me, we’re leaving for San Francisco and I really need to start packing.
Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist. If you want to send a message to Taylor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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