Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

March 25–April 1, 1999

city beat

Dumped On

Dumped On... and on... and on....

A tire here, an engine block there—illegal dumping takes a toll on Southwest Philadelphia.

by Frank Lewis



What A Dump: 49th Street and Grays Avenue is one of the many dumping trouble spots in the 40th ward.

photo: Sandor Welsh


The towers of Center City are easily visible from 49th Street and Grays Avenue in Southwest Philly. Step past the shredded chain link fence, over some tires, past the broken bed frames and around the loosely wrapped plastic bags of God knows what, and you can see Liberty One in all its shimmering glory. Geographically it's at most two miles away. But for practical purposes, it's much, much farther.

When city and state law enforcement officials announced in January that they would begin to crack down on illegal dumping in Philadelphia, they named this site—an abandoned oil company truck terminal not far from the Schuylkill River—number one among the city's 10 dumping "hot spots." And it's easy to see why. With hardly any fence left to slow them down, dumpers have covered the lot with debris of all shapes and sizes—most noticably car tires, but also busted-up furniture, carpeting, clothing and run-of-the-mill household trash. There even is a surprising number of toys, like the headless baby doll that sits just inside the ungated entrance, next to the decaying guard station—an image rife with symbolism, given the property's total lack of security.

If 49th and Grays were the only such site in Southwest Philadelphia's 40th Ward, that would be one thing. But there are many others: 68th Street and Chester Avenue; 61st Street between Eastwick and Passyunk Avenues (the same stretch of road that attracts hundreds of drag racers every weekend); Eastwick near 58th; 47th near Upland and Reinhard; a U-shaped access road near where Island Avenue connects with I-95.

"I've seen boats abandonded there," says Donna Henry, director of Southwest Philadelphia Community Development Corporation, referring to the Island Avenue site. "Sometimes it's so bad it's hard to drive around it." The area is cleaned periodically, she says, but the debris always mysteriously reappears.

Citywide, an estimated 18,000 tons of detritus scars the landscape at any given time, according to data released by the State Attorney General's Office at the announcement of the crackdown. The city spends about $5 million annually to clean it up.

But even quick glances at some of the Southwest Philadelphia sites mentioned above will make that figure seem laughably low.

Part of the problem is the area's history as an industrial center. Like South Philadelphia, much of Southwest Philly's riverfront land is zoned "least restricted"—meaning virtually every type of manufacturing, refining, distilling, transferring, etc. is a permissable use. Many such industries have moved operations to other parts of the country and overseas in search of lower costs, leaving their factories and plants abandoned. And accessible to anyone with bolt cutters (that's if someone else hasn't breached the fence already) and a truckload of bald tires, concrete chunks or broken-down washing machines. Most of these sites are relatively secluded, so there's little chance of being seen.

But the problem doesn't stop there; some local residents, too impatient to wait for the weekly trash pick-up, or too lazy to dispose of old appliances properly, have gotten into the act.

"In front of abandoned houses, you have bags of trash, old refrigerators, things like that," says Kay Sampson, a former environmental activist who still contributes to one of the community newspapers, the Southwest Globe Times (in this week's piece, she urges residents to get the license plate numbers of illegal dumpers' trucks). "People are dumping things right in their own neighborhoods," she adds with a disapproving tone.

"People tend to dump where they see blight already," explains Andrea Hall, a 25-year resident who's been involved in most of Southwest Philadelphia's environmental battles in that period. Air and water quality remain the community's primary concern, she says—and understandably so, given its proximity to dozens of active, potentially polluting industrial sites and its comparatively high cancer rate—but illegal dumping is a close second.

In some cases, activists say, dumping sites are more than eyesores—they are disasters in the making. Brenda Watkins, community organizer for the Southwest Philadelphia Community Enrichment Center, says that before the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections sealed some abandoned homes on the 1400 block of Fallon Street in December, she worried that kids or squatters would inadvertently start a blaze that would take the neighborhood with it.

"That [site] was terrible. There were tires everywhere—and these are houses," Watkins says. "If that block would have caught on fire, there's no telling how many streets would have gone up with it.

"It was like a war zone," she adds. "And people live there."

Sometimes when dumping sites are secured, they don't stay that way. Recently Watkins learned that the lock on the gate to a former trouble spot, near 47th and Upland, had been broken, and that cars have been ditched there. But she also heard from a neighbor a few weeks ago that a video camera is keeping round-the-clock watch over 47th Street between Upland and Reinhard.

Video surveillence was to be part of the illegal dumping crackdown announced by the Police Department and State Attorney General Michael Fisher about two months ago. "To those who dump their trash on hot spots, beware," Fisher was quoted as saying by the Daily News. "We will no longer allow you to dump on the City of Philadelphia."

A visit to the number-one hot spot, 49th and Grays, demonstrates that this goal won't be as easily attained as Fisher's bold boast made it sound. Calls to Fisher's office and to the Police Department's Environmental Crimes Unit were not returned before press time.

Some of Southwest Philadelphia's environmental activists have moved away; several numbers provided by a local Environmental Protection Agency official have been reassigned. Some sources who were reached speculated that the others just got tired of the constant battles, all of them fought uphill, against polluters and dumpers and city officials with more pressing issues on their agendas.

But Hall points out that Southwest Philly has high concentrations of older and poor residents, for whom moving away isn't an option. Besides, she adds, there's a principle at stake.

"I don't see us leaving," she says. "We'd rather stay and fight the good fight and make things better… This is our home, and we're not going anywhere."

40th Ward

Southwest Philadelphia, bounded roughly by the Schuylkill River, the Philadelphia-Delaware County border, 57th Street and the B&O Railroad

1999 registered voters: 26,285

Voter turnout in 1995: 7,555 of 21,981 (34.3%); Citywide turnout: 38.6%

Voter turnout in 1991: 11,347 of 21,474 (52.9%); Citywide turnout: 60.8%

All numbers reflect November election

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