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Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood.  Click to enlarge.

Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood (Click to enlarge)

I went out this Saturday morning with my daughter for Cleanup Day. We decided to work on our immediate neighborhood rather than on one of the main streets.  Our neighborhood needed it badly.

(For those not in Fairbanks, Cleanup Day is an annual ritual here, where hundreds — if not thousands — of Fairbanksans — come out to pick up all the garbage that has been revealed after the snow has melted.  It is sponsored by United Way of the Tanana Valley.)

Just to pick up the garbage on one block adjacent to our house took us an hour.  Now, granted, my older daughter is five years old and couldn’t be expected to pursue garbage pick-up with the sustained vigor that an adult might.  But, still, there was plenty: candy wrappers, plastic toys, broken bottles, small metal scraps, fast food boxes, aluminum cans, and of course cigarette butts.

In fact, the block might have taken us only half an hour, had it not been for the cigarette butts.  Not only were they plenty in the gutter alongside the nearby apartment buildings, but there was also a major stash of them at the base of a telephone pole — a makeshift ashtray, it seemed.  Sensing that my daughter’s enthusiasm was waning, I ignored the butts for our second, longer block — though that still left us enough to do.

Why so many butts?  Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Cigarette butts are far more plentiful than other forms of litter because they are small — so small that the offending smoker thinks they’re negligible.  I don’t really believe that the person who throws cigarette butts on the ground would also pitch phone books, coffee grounds, and torn clothes.
  • People only believe that cigarette butts are negligible garbage because they spend insufficient time outside, walking in the same places.  When public spaces like streets are thought of by the vast majority of people as little more than conduits for cars, it’s easy to disregard them.  Who can see a cigarette butt (or any small piece of trash) from inside a car moving twenty miles an hour?

The sad thing my daughter noticed (and I’ve noticed it for years) is that the first block we worked was vastly messier than the second.  The connection she didn’t mention is that the first block is where a quintet of low-rent apartment buildings are located — and that the garbage level is always higher on all sides of that block.  This block tends to confirm our worst stereotypes of the poor.

I can see a few causes for this — and I’m happy to have people suggest others.  (1) Renters do not have the same kind of investment that homeowners do in the appearance of their property or their neighborhood, so they’ll tend (not all, of course, but as an aggregate) not to care about the level of trash.  Transient renters have even less cause to care.  (2) In all shared spaces (like apartments), it’s easy to assume that the mess belongs to the other guy, which makes it easier to ignore — especially if dirty yards and streets won’t affect your monthly payment.  (3) The apartments themselves are old and falling apart.  While the lawn is mowed, there is sad little other maintenance done (that I can see from outside).  That kind of living space invites people not to take care of their buildings or neighborhoods.  (4) The low-rent apartments form a sizeable cluster; the few other properties on the block take up about a quarter of its area.  This tends to concentrate all the other factors.  If housing for the poor were instead spaced out evenly, it would diminish the concentration of ugliness and dignify the living situations of those have to (or choose to) live there.


Two announcements:

In case you didn’t know, this week is Bike to Work Week.  Leave your car at home!  If you live too far from work for bicycling to be feasible… why?  Isn’t that in itself too great a price?

Also, tomorrow — that’s Tuesday, May 12 — the Northern Leadership Center Lecture Series is presenting Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampsire Charitable Foundation and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community.  The lecture title is “Better Together: Community Leadership and Social Capital” and will be presented at 7 p.m. in Schiable Auditorium (part of UAF’s Bunnell Building).

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