Litter vigilante cited by city for -- uh -- debris
July 29, 2009 4:00 AM
Paul McCarthy, 62, of Greenfield, next to some trash that remained after he cleaned up the hillside and sidewalk.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nobody else was cleaning up the litter and overgrowth in the scrappy Greenfield section known as The Run, so Paul McCarthy decided to do it himself.
But the little heaps of trash and brush he left on the sidewalk, and occasionally by the curb, along Saline Street and Second Avenue prompted a Redd Up dust up when he and city workers disagreed on the rules.
Now he faces a rare, possibly unique, city citation for leaving debris on streets and sidewalks that will bring him before a district judge and could subject him to an unspecified fine.
To Mr. McCarthy, a former city electrician being treated for cancer, eliminating litter is a matter of civic spirit.
"A lot of people travel through this area in the morning, and if all they see is debris, that affects their attitude," he said as he stood by a pile of trash and brush he raked up along Second Avenue.
To Rob Kaczorowski, city Public Works Department's deputy director of operations, fighting litter is all about communication and coordination -- something Mr. McCarthy's vigilante clean-up push lacked.
"We're all for volunteer efforts, but it has to be coordinated," Mr. Kaczorowski said. "Some of the stuff he does, I think he does to aggravate us."
Mr. McCarthy, who left the city's employ around 2000 because of health problems, moved from the South Side to Greenfield last autumn. He noticed the trash strewn along its streets, and called the city's 311 help line.
When nothing happened by June, he started piling the junk himself, typically toiling for an hour and a half on cool mornings. Because vines and weeds sheltered some of the litter and encroached on sidewalks, he cut them.
"Everybody walking by as I was doing it was thanking me -- everybody except public works," he said. "I just left it there, figuring they'd get to it. They never did."
He called City Council President Doug Shields' office, and eventually a city crew came and filled a dump truck with some -- but not all -- of his piles. Their boss told him to bag any future hauls. Mr. McCarthy balked.
"I'm 62 years old and down with cancer," he said. "How much do they expect me to do for free?"
A lot of Pittsburghers pick up litter for free, and the city provides bags and gloves for organized clean-ups, said Mr. Kaczorowski. If everyone left piles every 15 feet and called the city to demand pick-up, he said, "We'd never get any of our work done."
There are volunteer clean-up forms to fill out and a committee to coordinate such efforts, he said. "You notify the city. You don't take it upon yourselves to do it," he said.
Volunteer Boris Weinstein, who runs the Clean City Committee that mobilizes some 10,000 people a year to tackle litter, said the department has been "unbelievable in their response to everything that I have requested in six years." He invited anyone seeking to organize a clean-up to call 412-688-9120 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Smith, executive director of the Greenfield Organization, said his group does mass clean-ups with city help, but added that there's a place for Mr. McCarthy's approach.
"From my perspective, this is the kind of thing the city wants people to do," he said. Public works staff "are put out because this is creating a little more work for them."
Mr. McCarthy said he tried to set deadlines.
In late June, he cleaned up along Second Avenue near the gateway to the neighborhood. "I called it in right away and said, 'Hey, I'd kind of like to see it picked up for the Fourth [of July], just to make it a nice area for the holiday,' " he said. The neighborhood holds an annual ceremony at its war memorial for the holiday.
Those piles remain. "Everything from candy wrappers to cigarette packs to beer bottles and liquor bottles," he said yesterday, standing above one of his heaps. "There's everything from plates to plastic covers for take-out food, snuff cans, potato chip bags."
Neighbors took sides. One e-mailed the city complaining about Mr. McCarthy's heaps.
Another, Jack Ingoldsby, backs him. He called the city's citation of Mr. McCarthy "abominable. ... I think they're short-sighted about what this man is trying to do for us."
The piles that got Mr. McCarthy in legal trouble are along Saline. On July 13, he got two citations from a public works inspector saying he "removed debris from hillside/sidewalk" and left it on the sidewalk in one case, and the street in another. They do not list the amount of the fine, which Mr. Kaczorowski said is up to the judge.
The citations came a week after news of Mr. McCarthy's efforts reached high levels of city government, prompting Mr. Kaczorowski to write to Public Works Director Guy Costa and his boss, Operations Director Art Victor, to warn that the piles could cause "incidents and accidents."
The department concluded that the only thing Mr. McCarthy would listen to was a citation.
It worked. He has stopped cleaning up. Yesterday new bags and cups had started to accumulate along Saline, and rocks and dirt washed out by June storms remained on the sidewalk.
Mr. Smith said The Run "is not really maintained." City crews "may come in once during the whole summer to [clear weeds and debris], if you're lucky."
Mr. Kaczorowski acknowledged that many neighborhoods feel they don't get enough attention from the city. "What's enough, though? And if it doesn't get enough [attention], where are the other neighbors, other than Mr. McCarthy?"
He said his inspectors have fined plenty of litterbugs, but never before a litter fighter -- and he hoped Mr. McCarthy would never have to write a check. If he goes before a district judge and agrees to coordinate further efforts with the city, "We'll waive it."