Philadelphia has been befouled with trash for decades, a long-running decline from its earlier reputation as a pacesetter for cleanliness. As late as 1950, the city was a national role model for clean streets. Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia’s most prominent citizen, even started the nation’s first street-sweeping program.
Philadelphia’s metamorphosis into “Filthadelphia” began about the time that Edmund Bacon, long-time executive director of the City Planning Commission, joined forces with architect Vincent Kling to create the Penn Center building complex across from City Hall, a nineteenth-century French Renaissance masterpiece once lauded by poet Walt Whitman. Few urban-renewal types at the time suspected that Penn Center’s mini gardens, decorated with benches and sculpture, would soon be filled with trash and debris, thanks to careless pedestrians on the street above treating the sunken squares as a kind of open dumpster.
By the early 1970s, the name “Filthadelphia” had become as enshrined as the Liberty Bell, especially among Philadelphia suburbanites. As a journalism school student commuting from the suburbs into the city at the time, I saw the evidence myself.
In 2020, Forbes named Philadelphia the dirtiest city in America. “Several factors contributed to Philadelphia’s ranking,” the magazine stated, “including low scores in several key categories like restaurant cleanliness, where it received the lowest possible score of 0, along with other minimal scores for electric vehicle market share (0.76), hand sanitizer demand (0.93) and quantity of recycling collectors (1.42).”
The city’s problems go way beyond demand for hand sanitizer, electric-vehicle market share, or whether there’s chewing gum on the bottom of Philadelphia Union League restaurant tables. Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest big city, and poverty and litter go hand in hand. Compounding the problem are extensive illegal dumping, the city’s opioid crisis (discarded syringes are now as common as plastic grocery bags), and a sanitation department that has struggled to keep up a regular schedule during much of the pandemic.
In my neighborhood of Port Richmond, the most popular dumping area is under a long railroad bridge known as the Belgrade Tunnel. At night, this bridge has a film noir look; random graffiti marks its walls—an awkward complement to a colorful mural by Mural Arts Philadelphia, complete with the artist’s name and date of installation. The utopian idea that art can impede untoward impulses to trash the environment meets its ultimate refutation here. This cavernous underpass has come to represent the unhappy marriage of art and illegal dumping—a Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet of shocks and surprises, including dead feral cats, old children’s toys, and the discarded contents of abandoned apartments.
Television sets, iPads, laptops, and other electronic devices, according to Pennsylvania law, must be deposited in specially designated sites. Dry wall, demolition waste, and oversized items have their own drop-off sites as well, though one must be mindful of the warning signs: “This site was moved,” or “Due to the pandemic, this site may be closed.” The confusion these directions cause make it easy for contractors to sidestep bureaucracy and dump wherever they want.
Consider the city’s mattress-disposal policy, the result of a bedbug epidemic several years ago. Regulations require used mattresses to be wrapped as tight as gifts from Macy’s before being placed curbside. Many residents choose to skip this muss and haul their old mattresses to the tunnels.
Philadelphia spends more money than any other city in Pennsylvania to fight littering and dumping. In 2017, the city council passed a bill raising fines for illegal dumping in the streets, but because of a shortage of surveillance cameras, the law is rarely enforced. That same year, the city placed 983 “Bigbelly” trash bins in sites across the city; these soon became another option for illegal dumping of hazardous waste.
Philadelphia’s mayors love to demonstrate that they care about a clean city. When Ed Rendell was elected mayor in 1991, news media showed him with a brush and scrub bucket, cleaning men’s rooms in City Hall, then infamous for their decades-old grime and graffiti. In 2008, Michael A. Nutter initiated an annual citywide cleanup—but Nutter also allowed Philadelphia to become the only city of its size without a street-sweeping program because city residents refused to move their cars. In 2019, minus the stipulation that residents had to move their cars, Mayor James Kenney reinstated a pilot street-sweeping program, but the pandemic killed it before it gained traction. Kenney also established the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet in 2016, with the goal of making Philadelphia 90 percent waste- and litter-free by 2035.
Sometimes it all comes down to basic things, like having enough trash receptacles in public spaces to keep people from littering. While common in Center City Philadelphia, trash receptacles are a rarity in other neighborhoods and can usually be found only in front of businesses—not near public transit stops where people congregate, or along long stretches of roadway.
As those 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcements emphasized, people will do the right thing as long as it’s not too disruptive to their lives. Nearby trash receptacles are never disruptive, but Philadelphia doesn’t have enough of them where it needs them.
Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images