When I was a young boy in the 1970s, my hometown of Queens, New York, was a garbage dump. At least, this is how I remember the place. Polluted. Soiled. Dirty. Smelly. A place people wanted to flee. Queens Boulevard, the unimaginatively named thoroughfare that runs through the borough, was overwhelmed with soda cans, cigarette packets, and brown bags often filled with half-eaten, rotting food. One early memory finds me visiting Flushing Meadows Park — the site of the famous 1964 World’s Fair, dedicated to “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe” and a place I considered “nature” for many years — and being captivated by the sight of shopping carts and black garbage bags stuck on the shores of the park’s lake.
Everyone littered. Not only would pedestrians routinely throw their trash on the ground, it wasn’t uncommon to see drivers chucking bags from their car windows. No one said a word.
Worse, a kid riding his Big Wheel on the sidewalks of Rego Park would find himself in an obstacle course of canine excrement — to my recollection, no one picked up after his dog, either. New York wouldn’t establish a “pooper scooper” law until 1978, and even then, as far as I recall, it was widely ignored.
Navigating Rego Park’s sidewalks, though, was a breeze compared with visiting my dad’s place of work in Manhattan. Taking a heavily graffitied F train into the city meant descending into filth-laden subway tunnels, a place where discarded newspapers were regularly blown about by an intolerable stench-filled displacement of air whenever an express train sped by. (None of that is to mention the widespread criminality; by 1979 there were over 250 felonies in the subways every week.)
Once I emerged from this disagreeable experience, I was, on my short walk from Times Square to the Diamond District on 46th Street, likely too distracted by the peep shows, porn movie houses, and bizarre people milling about to notice the thousands of cigarette butts or disconcerting debris I was stepping on along the way. It was just how things were.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the urban liberal do-gooder was cleaning up these cities. At some point in the early 1980s, citizens, not merely the wealthy but also the middle and working classes (in those days they could still afford to live in our big cities), got sick of wading through rubbish and began browbeating their neighbors into decency.
It still took decades to fix the litter problem — and, obviously, it would never be completely corrected — but the city streets were no longer complete dumps. Not Switzerland or Tokyo clean, for sure, but bearable. And though laws certainly helped with the cleaning up, it was a dramatic shift in social norms that really did the trick. Signs told people to curb their mutts. Signs told people to throw out their trash. PSAs began inundating the airwaves in the ’70s. How long could we ignore Iron Eyes Cody, the fake Indian in one of those PSAs imploring us to “keep America beautiful,” after he saw some savage throw trash from a speeding car? “People start pollution; people can stop it.” They could. Mostly by shaming those who trashed the city.
I bring up all this unpleasantness because it seems to me that many of the children and grandchildren of these heroic litter-fighters, people who haven’t had to step over broken bottles daily, are allowing our cities to backslide. I have no way of quantifying the relapse, but whenever I go back to my hometown it sure feels a bit more like the 1970s, and I don’t write those words nostalgically. “All of us have to deal with the filth that collects on the side of the road, making our community look uninviting and run down,” a spokesperson for one of the few current anti-litter campaigns in the city, Staten Island’s “Operation Clean Sweep,” recently complained. “The more litter we have on our streets, the more it becomes an accepted part of life.”
The latter is an important point. Research unsurprisingly shows that people are much more likely to litter when they see other barbarians throwing garbage on the ground. Bad behavior is contagious.
Considering how wealthy the city had become, I thought it improbable that New York would ever return to being its old putrid self. Then, of course, I remembered San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the world. Its recent difficulties with litter have been well documented. One study, conducted by an infectious-disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley, found that downtown San Francisco now rivals some of the world’s dirtiest slums. The “contamination” in some areas of the city, the researcher told Newsweek, is “much greater than [that in] communities in Brazil or Kenya or India.” If it’s not the accumulating trash, it’s the discarded needles that spread HIV and hepatitis B and C and the feces-infested streets that can spread dangerous viruses — all of which points to bigger societal problems.
Research also shows that the best prediction of littering is age. The idealistic, socially conscious, under-30 city-dweller is far more likely to litter than the older one. Perhaps it’s that most of these younger Americans have grown up with a high quality of life and take cleanliness for granted. Perhaps it’s a decline in our willingness to heap public scorn on the offenders. I can already see my emails. “Okay, Boomer!” But, as things stand, many young urbanites seem more offended by the presence of a Chick-fil-A than by the sight of some philistine dropping a chicken-sandwich wrapper on their sidewalk.