Walkabout: Volunteer's mission is to put clear end to local dump sites
April 3, 2012 4:00 AM
Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette
Joe Divack, dump site coordinator for Allegheny CleanWays, initiated a one-man clean-up of a Homewood lot.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A colleague got a call last week from a Homewood resident who had been trying to get the city to clean an abandoned lot beside the home of a relative.
The caller, Herbert Austin, said the property had been trashed for years and his pleas to the city had gone unanswered.
I met him at 7017 Susquehanna St. on Friday and my jaw dropped. It wasn't just a heavily littered lot. It was 2,600 square feet piled with broken furniture, tires, carpeting, demolition debris, wood scraps, hundreds of bags stuffed with garbage and thousands of cans, bottles and cartons.
The property, according to the county's website, is owned by the East End Federal Savings and Loan Bank, an entity that hasn't existed for many years. Neighbors said the house on the land was demolished decades ago.
On my Walkabout blog Friday, I posted a photo of the site and wrote about its abuse.
John Jennings, acting chief of the Bureau of Building Inspections, told me the city is not responsible for the lot and has no interest in acquiring it. The Redd-Up team is too busy trying to care for properties the city already owns, he said, adding that the Susquehanna site "has been referred once and will be again" to the Redd-Up crew to get to it when possible.
But it's already being tackled.
A volunteer for Allegheny CleanWays sent a link to my blog to Joe Divack, the nonprofit group's coordinator of dump site clean-ups.
In an email to me Sunday, Mr. Divack wrote, "I found it so appalling that I started to clean it today. Debris pile is about two dumptruck loads so far, with more to come."
Wearing heavy gloves, Mr. Divack was clutching a big chunk of damp carpeting when I met him there Monday morning. He had piled all the big debris I had seen Friday for a pending haul-away, filled the back of his pickup truck and was working on the under-layer of litter that had long ago established the property's role -- to begin taking abuse and to sanction more.
Mr. Divack, a retired behavioral therapist, cleaned up his first lot three years ago after tiring of seeing the trash near a Sheraden cemetery where he and his wife have relatives buried.
"I just decided one day to clean it up," he told me in a 2010 interview. "When you're paying your respects to loved ones, you shouldn't be seeing broken toilets."
A year later, after being named the Clean Pittsburgh Commission's Volunteer of the Year, he told me, "I discovered I really liked doing this."
Pausing to talk at the Homewood site Monday, he asked, "Have you been around back?" He led me to the end of the block and around to North Murtland Street, where we saw a broken toilet.
"I've been asked how I find my next jobs," he said. "I just look around."
On Tanner Way, a skinny brick alley, we stopped halfway down at the dump-site equivalent of a train wreck on both sides. A red kitchen counter lay up against debris such as foam padding, heaps of carpet and wood scraps piled three or four feet deep.
"This is another drop in the ocean of abuse that degrades the neighborhood," Mr. Divack said. "This was done by people who were remodeling on the cheap, wanting to save [dumping fees] and make a gift to Homewood.
"We really have two cities," said Mr. Divack, who lives a mile or so away in Squirrel Hill: One gets dumped on and the other wouldn't tolerate it.
Mr. Divack wants to drum the message that "there are many options for doing the right thing. A lot of this stuff could be reused. We need a campaign, whether it be billboards or other media, to educate contractors.
"No one wants to own up to just how dirty the city is."
The state's new Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act gives communities better weapons to fight the owners of blight, but when the owner is named on paper but non-existent, you've hit no-man's land. It's not your property so you're legally trespassing if you try to clean it up, but it's not really anyone's property, so the city can beg off. The neighbors can cast about for someone to blame, never getting a bite, and the problem worsens.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of properties that languish in this incapacitating limbo.
Before he resumed clearing the lot, Mr. Divack said, "Maybe what I'm doing is technically illegal, but I don't care. It shouldn't be technically illegal. Property law is letting us down as citizens."