Why do so many Pittsburghers think that the city is their personal dump site? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why do so many Pittsburghers think that the city is their personal dump site?

Question submitted by: Ann Rosenthal, Bloomfield

Hey, it's nothing a few $1,000 trash cans emblazoned with the mayor's name can't fix. And to be fair, a lot of that trash is likely being dumped not by residents, but by unscrupulous housing contractors and auto garages trying to avoid disposal fees.

As CP reported in a November 2006 cover story, such business owners tend to visit poor neighborhoods in the dead of night, so they can dump their trash in someone else's backyard. As far as they're concerned, the trash did disappear. Such things happen everywhere, but Pittsburgh's hillsides probably make some unofficial dumps more visible.

And as a community leader told us in 2006, "When you see [people dumping in your neighborhood] from an early age, [dumping] becomes the norm." When you get the sense no one else cares about your neighborhood, it's easy to pick up the habit.

Even so, over the years, I've heard plenty of complaints like yours. Pittsburghers' hygiene has been a subject of speculation almost since the city was founded. As far back as 1783, a visitor named Johann Schoepf (a German, no less) groused that the streets were "unpaved dirty, littered with refuse, with dogs and hogs roaming through the mire." And that was before St. Patrick's Day!

Such complaints continued for nearly two centuries. Here's reformer Margaret Byington writing about the homes of local steelworkers: "Accumulations of rubbish and broken brick pavements render [the surroundings] untidy and unwholesome." And here's Rev. R. Earl Boyd, in a 1917 text about the city's spiritual failings: "Serious difficulty is experienced in the matter of garbage and rubbish removal. Much of the difficulty no doubt is due to carelessness on the part of residents. Many do not provide proper receptacles for keeping the garbage and rubbish."

Some saw these problems as a symptom of loose morals among the city's working class -- the old game of blaming the conditions of poverty on the poor. Others recognized them as the result of living in a city dominated by heavy industries that were busily polluting the environment themselves. Obviously, Pittsburgh struggled with such problems more than almost anywhere else, and local government also was often incapable of solving them: In the mid-1840s, the city dump was a barge docked alongside the Allegheny River, and street-cleaning was nearly impossible in working-class areas because roads were unpaved. (Things are better now, provided you live down the street from a committeeman.)

Of course, the city is much less polluted than it once was. But changing people's habits takes time ... and it's been only in the past few years, for example, that the city found use for a giant ash pile left behind by the steel industry in Nine Mile Run -- right next door to Frick Park.

Maybe I'm just making excuses for people, blaming their behavior on decades-old economic realities. But we've probably all heard the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement: Minor acts of vandalism, it's said, create blighted environments where criminals feel licensed to commit more serious crimes. And while we're good at nailing petty crooks for their behavior, much bigger problems don't attract the same ire.

On one hand, local officials are prosecuting crimes like graffiti more harshly than ever: Last year, one "tagger" was sentenced to 2-1/2 to 5 years in state prison. At the same time, though, officials in the mayor's office have bent over backward to let corporations put their names up all over town -- in the form of increasingly intrusive billboards. We gripe about people who toss cigarette butts on the sidewalk, but a campaign to reduce diesel emissions from local school buses faces an uphill climb.

I'm not saying any of this excuses people who litter. I'm just saying -- to use a garbage-related metaphor -- that a fish rots from the head down.