Sunday, June 25, 2017

Community Cleanup at Scovill Homes

There are people who sit around complaining about problems, and then there are people who dive right in and solve the problems. Today was a good day for the problem-solvers in the Scovill Row Homes.

First, a little background. In the ten years that I've lived in a Scovill Row Home on Wood Street, we've been dealing with the same problems endlessly: litter, dumping, overgrown weeds, abandoned property, and decaying sidewalks. I've been to countless meetings where everyone sits around complaining, where community leaders fixate on trying to change people's behavior, where there's a lot of talking and very little accomplished.

I've also participated in the handful of sporadic community cleanups we've done in the past. I've listened to people say there's no point doing them again, because it all gets filled up with trash soon after. But you know what? Every single day, I pick up litter in my yard. And every single day, there's more to pick up after only a few hours. But I'm never going to stop picking it up. I may sometimes let the weeds grow too tall before I pull them, but I will never ignore litter in my yard or on the sidewalk in front of my house or in the common area behind my house. If we have to hold a community cleanup two or three times a year, why is that a bad thing? That's just how life is in an urban neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, Mike Patrick from the Republican-American contacted me about a story he was writing, a follow-up to an article from five years ago about blight at the Scovill Row Homes. He wanted to know if anything had changed. He interviewed me and a few other residents, with a consensus that very little has changed.

About a week after the article ran in the paper (and was followed up on TV by WFSB), the police came through Wood Street issuing blight violation notices to maybe half or a third of the properties. This was on Wednesday, June 21. We were given until Monday, June 26 to clean up overgrown lawns, etc., after which it would be a $250 per day fine. This is a neighborhood where an income of $250 a week is a lot of money, so a fine of that size can destroy lives. Many people cut their lawns immediately; many other properties are still overgrown.

One of my neighbors, Erika Cooper, works at Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Waterbury. NHS does a lot of community building and engagement in the North End, so their Executive Director jumped right on board with Erika's proposal to do something here. We had already been talking about a community block party/cleanup. The blight violation warnings made the plan more urgent. We were worried about the seniors who live here, who might not be able to take care of their yards, and anyone who might be away for a couple of weeks and would return to a massive fine.

We pooled together our resources, did a little promotion on Facebook, and began gathering on Carpmill Street at 9am this morning with garbage bags, leaf bags, gloves, rakes, and hedge clippers. Water, soda, burgers and hot dogs were on hand as the day wore on.

At first, we were a small group. Many thanks and kudos to Michael Salvio from the Historic Overlook Community Club and Robert Goodrich. Neither lives in our neighborhood, but when they saw the flyer for the cleanup, they volunteered to assist. I had a great chat with Salvio about community organizing. He told me how the HOCC was able to revitalize Fulton Park--it all started with twice-a-year cleanups and large numbers of residents showing up to complain to city officials during an election year.

As we cleaned, neighbors saw what we were doing and came out to help. People of all ages, abilities, and ethnicities pitched in. It was fantastic. It brought a glimmer of hope to those of us who struggle daily against the trash and weeds that pile up here.

There were also people who really just don't get the concept. One person triumphantly declared that the City was "finally" going to clean his sidewalk. Another person wanted to know how much he would get paid if he helped. There are a lot of misconceptions and ignorance, and a fair amount of selfishness. Some people simply aren't willing to put in some hard labor on a beautiful Sunday to make their community a better place to live. I can only hope those people will at least learn to take care of their own areas.

For those of you who have suggested that we should ask our Alderman for help.... I've been trying to be nice, I've been hoping to be diplomatic and bridge divides, and I've been trying to avoid annoying people, but it has to be said, because keeping quiet about this is not fair to the people who live here, to the people who worked so hard today to clean up this neighborhood. After listening to my neighbors today, I believe I have an obligation to speak publicly about this, even if I lose friends or acquaintances over it.

We have an Alderman who lives in a Scovill Row Home surrounded by trash and weeds that he never picks up (photos are included below). The only time anyone sees him in the community is when he stands outside the WOW Community Learning Center smoking his cigarettes, surrounded by knee-high grass and litter-filled sidewalks and storm drains that he never cleans. He saw us cleaning up this morning and didn't even bother to come over and say hello. When we ask for his help, he tells us that we have to go to his meetings first. Well, we've all been to those meetings. And we have all stopped going to those meetings because they never turn into action. It's all talk. It's endless complaining about all the same things everyone has been complaining about for years. And whenever anyone of us does take action, we've been reprimanded and told that we need to have more meetings before any action can be taken. Action stalled for years because of this. That's over now. Today made it clear that the people who live here can get things done without a meeting or a pre-meeting.

I'm curious to see what happens this fall when we have the first election without a Mayoral race since we switched to Alderman by District. Will our Aldermen be held more accountable by their neighbors? Will they have to work harder in their districts to get votes for themselves? Personally, I hope we see a better selection of Aldermen, more people who are actively involved in their communities, more people who are willing to lead by example instead of lecturing us about how we need to do more.

I'm sorry if what I've written offends you or makes you angry, but I believe that criticism of elected officials is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

I hold our elected officials to a high standard, because that is what the people of Waterbury deserve. Just like our elected officials, I am a public servant. I live and breathe service to my community. Whether I'm at work or on my day off, I am focused on doing what I can to help make Waterbury the best possible city it can be. (Don't worry, I'm not completely fanatical, I do take time off for myself every so often.) I absolutely did not want to get up early on Sunday morning during my vacation to pick up trash, but I did it because it is my civic duty. I did it because I have no right to complain about blight if I'm not willing to get out there and help clean it up. I did it because I care about this neighborhood and the people who live here. I did it because it was the right thing to do. I strongly believe that the people of Waterbury deserve elected officials who are equally willing to serve the community, who are able to set aside their egos and do what is right for the people.

So, if you're still reading, here are the photos from today's cleanup. Stay tuned: there will be more community building and engagement activities for the Scovill Row Homes. It's time to turn this place around!

Overgrown weeds on Carpmill Street. Some people mistakenly think they are supposed to dump their mattresses, TVs, etc., since they see other people do it, and since most townhouse developments have a communal trash pickup site.

There's a fence in there somewhere. Overgrowth in the yard of an abandoned house.

More of the mountain of trash on Carpmill Street.

Michael Salvio from the Historic Overlook Community Club diving right into our mess.
Thank you Michael!

Neighbors joining in the cleanup. We moved as much to the sidewalk as we could, since the city told us they will only pick up trash if it is on the sidewalk. If it's in the common area (which is technically abandoned property, as the association that owned it dissolved during the 1980s), they won't pick it up.

Overgrowth and trash along an abandoned property on Carpmill Street.

More of the same property, overgrowth, and trash.

The view of Carpmill from Wood Street.

The first success: getting all the weeds cut down and removed. This spot wound up being filled with garbage bags for tomorrow's trash pickup -- we had nowhere else to put it all.

Michael Salvio and Robert Goodrich, visitors to the neighborhood who lent a hand.

Tackling the weeds and trash on the other side of Carpmill Street.

Sweeping up the sidewalk on Carpmill.

Making progress!

An elderly neighbor who insisted on helping, instead of being helped.

He moved slowly and cautiously, but he did what he could to help clean up.

Neighbors who saw what was happening and came out to help.

I snuck a few photos as we all worked, trying to make sure that everyone who participated gets credit for their efforts. 

Who says you can't have fun while you pick up trash?

Juanita Hernandez, who lives on Ives Street and serves on the Board of Education, can always be counted on to help the community.

Michael Salvio in the thick of it on Ives Street.

Mike Gagne from the Rep-Am, interviewing one of the neighbors who's done a few cleanups here over the years.

Cleaning up the common area behind the odd-numbered side of Ives Street.

Wrapping up on Carpmill Street.

This neighbor saw what was happening and used his weed whacker to clear the sidewalks in front of all the houses, as well as tackling as much of the common areas as he could.

This is the pile of trash behind our Alderman's home.

On the left is an abandoned house with mattresses and other items piled up. The row house next to it is our Alderman's house. Remember that the next time you tell me that we should ask our Alderman for help with blight in the neighborhood. He's a nice guy, but I'd prefer to have an Alderman who is more active in the community and who doesn't allow trash to sit for years in the abandoned yard next to his house. I know I'm making some enemies with this statement, but I will not cover up something that needs to be exposed for the sake of the people who live here.

The blighted triple-decker on the corner of Wood and Carpmill is abandoned, but that's no reason to let the weeds and trash pile up and spill into the street. Every little bit helps.

Miss Lola, on the left, is a senior who has owned her house on Wood Street for 30 years. She can't take care of her yard on her own, so some of our volunteers helped her out. She was grateful for the help and for the chance to socialize.

Even more people joined in as the day went on.

The man in the red shirt gathered up all the tires.

Bagging up weeds and cleaning up the debris with a leaf blower.

We cleaned up a TON of trash!

The trash pile on Ives is smaller. After four hours of heavy labor in a hot sun, we had to call it quits before doing the entire length of the Ives Street common area.

Now the length of Carpmill is clean and tidy. We might have to do another, smaller clean up after the trash is picked up, in case there's any loose debris left behind.

No more overgrowth, no more trash.

We stayed off private property, sticking only to sidewalks, streets, and the common areas. But the improvement to the areas we did clean is so great to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Work! Kudos to all!