There’s a litter problem in Prospect Park. So, every other Tuesday, volunteers organized by Marie Viljoen meet to pick up trash. We caught up with her about her Prospect Park Litter Mob, and asked why she even has to do what she does in the first place. (What am I paying taxes for?!)
How serious is the litter problem in Prospect Park?
Different areas in the park seem to experience different levels of littering, as well as litter clean-up. The western side, closest to Park Slope, appears relatively litter-free. I believe it receives the most attention from employees. It was only when I explored the eastern woods and southern parts of the park that the extent and nature of the litter and neglect became apparent. These woods are not appreciated as they could be, because people seem nervous exploring them.
What kind of litter do you find?
Plenty of bottles, cigar- and cigarette-wrappers, condom wrappers, condoms, toilet and tissue paper, wet wipes. And human excrement. Not exactly litter, but not fun, either. I bought rubber boots just for use in these woods.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve found?
Sticks sheathed in condoms would qualify as the strangest and most thought-provoking. A pink dildo. A backpack full of tools, probably stolen. Sample packs of skin-care products. Personal medical records showing HIV status. Credit cards.
Why does it fall to volunteers to do this instead of the parks department?
To start with, the NYC department of parks and recreation is not the overseeing body in Prospect Park. The Prospect Park Alliance is an NGO that manages the park in partnership with NYC Parks. Exactly who does what seems a little fuzzy. Our litter pick-up and forest restoration projects are supported by staff from the Natural Resources crew, funded by the Alliance.
The reason I was given about the need for volunteers, who do a lot more than collect litter, is that there is no money to staff the park adequately. And in practice, I see existing staff stretched beyond capacity. Officially, most staff are required to do litter duty in conjunction with their other complex maintenance duties in the park. I have also heard the opinion that having sanitation crews dedicated solely to litter clean up would be “demeaning” for those workers. That amazes me. Cleaning litter in a park is not demeaning. It is an essential part of running a park and has an immediate and visible effect. In a “broken windows” way, I support attention to apparently minor details: If there is consistent litter in an area, people feel comfortable littering. Because it is obvious that no one cares. This is what has happened in the woods where we collect litter. The woods were, in my opinion, abandoned by the stewards of the parks. The reasons are, as I mentioned before, complex.
Did you know that Central Park is not run by the Parks Department either? The Central Park Conservancy is another private organization. Prospect Park just has a lot less money. So these two green jewels in New York’s crown are not cared for by the city. I want my tax dollars to be spent on my parks.
The next Litter Mob meets February 7 at 9 a.m. More info here.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart