Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Clean Up

From time to time, streets and neighborhoods in our community are absolutely filthy. Our tendency, when we see this, is to complain about the sanitation workers. We might even call the sanitation department or City Hall to express our outrage. This is good citizenship. Holding government accountable is the responsibility of every good citizen.

But we are not exactly sure what to do about the SUV that was driving in front of us last week where someone rolled down a window and tossed out the remains of their dinner in a Styrofoam container. The cornbread hit the ground and lay flat while some of the potato salad and greens wound up on our windshield. The chicken bones danced along the asphalt before one landed on the hood of our car. We were not sure what to do and, not wanting to do the wrong thing, we pulled over to the curb to clean off the car. This was not the first or even second time something like this has happened and our level of frustration just continues to rise. But where is the solution?

As bad as it is to trash the city streets, trashing one’s home is inexcusable and just plain filthy. And it’s worse when the property you trash doesn’t even belong to you.

Recently we had the unfortunate opportunity to become aware of a problem that completely stunned us. We have seen a lot of destruction and bad behavior over the years but for us this was a new level of disrespect and self-imposed filth. It was one of those cases that cry out for condemnation so we raise our meager voice to protest.

Imagine yourself in a housing complex on an upper floor. You decide to walk down the two or more flights to the ground floor. When you open the door to the stairwell you see garbage piled nearly halfway up the stairs. The stench is horrific. And you are too traumatized to even move. There you stand frozen before a shaft of filth thrown there by people too lazy and/or filthy to walk a few steps to a fully operational incinerator or carry it to a nearby dumpster or garbage can. So who are these people who want to live like pigs and have everyone around them live like pigs too?

It reminds me of what my old friend Butterball once told me. Butter said that there was this thing which he called an “Abandoned Building Mentality” that governed the living conditions of some people. According to Butter, people affected by this abnormality needed the smell of urine and doors hanging from hinges to feel at home. So powerful is their longing that they tear up new developments as quickly as they can to create familiar surroundings that they find comfortable.

As we looked down that stairwell we heard Butterball. And we went to the elevator and left the premises wondering if there was any hope at all. Now of course the City must make the landlord clean the stairwell and any others that might be in the same condition. The City must also cite the landlord for the filthy conditions and maybe the Health Department should weigh-in and issue a few citations of their own. This is, after all, the job of government. Landlords must also be held accountable.

Should tenants be held accountable? Perhaps there is little to be done about those who toss chicken bones, but surely something can be offered to reign in tenants determined to destroy property and exercise all the ravages of their “Abandoned Building Mentality.” Here’s our thought: All tenants, regardless of status, should be required to pay security deposits on their apartments. All destruction of property should be remedied (paid for) out of the pool of security deposit payments. All tenants should be required to contribute additional money to the security deposit pool to make up the shortage caused by the payments for repairs that result from destructive behavior. Legislation, if necessary, should be enacted to permit holding abusive tenants responsible.

Under this arrangement it will be in everyone’s interest to keep things clean and in good repair. Kind of like everyone staying after school until the teacher finds out who threw the chalk out the window. Tenants will be more likely to report vandals if there is a collective price to pay. Only shared responsibility can point us toward a real solution.

It is true that we cannot legislate behavior. But neither can we ignore it if we really want to achieve an improved quality of life. And of course there are those who will intone that we are blaming the victim. But as we smeared potato salad from our windshield we understood clearly that we were the victim. We are victims of bad habits, lack of concern and filth. It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to CLEAN UP.

Usually politicians are loath to criticize prospective voters on their shortcomings. But their silence only adds to the problem. Leaders must lead even when it is unpopular. No one should get a pass when our safety and quality of life are at stake. Everybody has to clean up.

September 18, 2007

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