Trash talkin’ in Soho; Raising awareness is key

An all-too-familiar scene in Soho nowadays: a street corner with an overflowing garbage can surrounded by litter on the sidewalk.
An all-too-familiar scene in Soho nowadays: At the northeast corner of Greene and Spring Sts., an overflowing garbage can surrounded by litter on the sidewalk.

BY YUKIE OHTA | Have you noticed that Soho streets have gotten progressively dirtier since last fall? That trash cans are often overflowing and Citi Bike stations have become mini-dumps? If so, you are not alone.

An informal network of residents in the Soho community concerned about the rise of dirty streets and sidewalks and the decline in their quality of life have gotten together to form a group called @CleanUpSoHo. Launched this past November, this group’s aim is to address this escalating issue through a public-awareness campaign and partnerships with community leaders.

Our once relatively rubbish-free sidewalks are now dotted with discarded shopping bags, coffee cups and food containers. This is largely because the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), subsidized by its founder, Soho resident Henry Buhl, stopped cleaning Soho’s streets last October due to funding challenges.

Susan Needles, a consultant to ACE and member of @CleanUpSoHo, only sees the situation further deteriorating.

“I think the Soho streets are miserable,” she said, “and I fear as the weather gets warmer and even more people are on the streets with water bottles, ice cream, etc., it will get far worse.”

The southwest corner of Greene and Prince Sts.
The southwest corner of Greene and Prince Sts.

The New York Department of Sanitation and most standard commercial leases require that building owners and commercial tenants keep the sidewalk and curb in front of their establishments clear. This rule applies to all sidewalks in Soho — except corners, where Sanitation must empty public trash bins. Neither Sanitation nor @CleanUpSoHo is able to offer incentives to encourage clean sidewalks, since this would amount to offering rewards for doing what is already a legal responsibility. The alternative, then, is to raise public awareness of this issue by educating the community, highlighting violations and imposing

West Broadway just south of Prince St.
West Broadway just south of Prince St.

fines on repeat offenders. @CleanUpSoHo is currently working with Sanitation to educate landlords and businesses of their responsibility under New York City law and to target recurring trash problem areas. The anti-garbage group is looking into procuring 45-gallon trash cans that comply with Sanitation regulations and exploring options for sidewalk- and street-cleaning services and community outreach to building owners and commercial landlords to make them aware of Sanitation trash disposal regulations.

To this end, @CleanUpSoHo is working with The Andrews Organization, which manages 75 buildings in Soho, to connect with Soho residents and building owners. Andrews fully supports the new group’s efforts, and Divya Rashad, its executive vice president, is on @CleanUpSoHo’s core committee. The committee hopes to forge other such alliances in the near future.

Coral Dawson, a member of @CleanUpSoHo and founder of Green Below 14 — a nonprofit that improves parks, playgrounds, and open spaces in Manhattan below 14th St. — agrees that raising awareness should be the focus.

The Citi Bike station at Mercer and Spring Sts.
The Citi Bike station at Mercer and Spring Sts.

“I personally feel that it is the responsibility of city agencies to do their job,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as residents who care about our community to raise our valid concerns and request that they be addressed appropriately and in a timely manner. I do not believe the burden of raising private funds to ensure our streets and sidewalks are clean and safe should fall on the residents.”

@CleanUpSoHo is also pressing for support from Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson, as well as Community Board 2. Johnson steered some of his discretionary funds to pay for street cleaning in the part of Soho falling within his Council district (the west side of Thompson St. to Sixth Ave., south of Houston St.), including Father Fagan Park at the corner of Prince St. and Sixth Ave. This contribution has made a noticeable improvement in litter management in that corner of Soho.

The anti-trash group is hoping to work with Chin’s office during the upcoming budget cycle to achieve a similar result in areas of Soho in her Council district (east side of Thompson St. to Mercer St, south of Houston St.). This area is especially affected by unsightly and unsanitary trash because it experiences a high volume of tourist traffic, pop-up shops and special promotional events.

Recent media coverage has raised @CleanUpSoHo’s public profile, while persistent calls to 311 and frequent tweets of photos of overflowing trash bins to @CleanUpSoHo with hashtags of politicians have resulted in Sanitation agreeing to double — from once to twice daily — its rounds to empty out the trash bins, though only for a limited period of time.

As far as I can tell, from an informal, unofficial and thoroughly unscientific survey, Soho residents are thus far keeping up their end of the bargain. Granted, due to a rise in transients living in Airbnb apartments and lofts, there are more people in the residential community who are unaware of these rules and put trash out incorrectly bagged at all hours.

Wooster St. just north of Prince St.
Wooster St. just north of Prince St.

“Soho’s streets have become filthy because we have tens of thousands of visitors daily and only a few dozen litter bins to hold their trash,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance and a member of @CleanUp SoHo. “It’s deplorable that a driver of the city’s economic engine like Soho must resort to a citizens’ campaign to clean filthy streets that the residents did not create.”

In 1972, after it was public knowledge that artists were living in Soho’s then-manufacturing buildings, residents formed a group like @CleanUpSoHo and lobbied for curb-side pickup of residential trash. Before then, because Soho was not zoned for residential use, Sanitation did not pick up household trash. Residents had to find creative ways to dispose of their trash — often illegally depositing it in public trash bins and commercial dumpsters. Businesses often complained, and artists were fined if trash was traced back to them through discarded mail with their name and address. Ironically, it is now largely commercial entities that skirt the disposal rules. I have faith @CleanUpSoHo, businesses and residents will solve our trash issue.