By Sally Koslow
Typically, I don’t intrude on random conversations of strangers. But yesterday when that other New York newspaper, the Times, suggested I do exactly that as a part of its 7-Day Happiness Challenge, I felt impelled to accost two women sharing an animated conversation. They had me at overhearing the word “filth.” There’s an unprecedented amount of it along Broadway between 96th and 106th Street. I can’t stand it and neither, as it turned out, can they.
“This part of Broadway never used to be so disgusting,” one woman said. I’ve lived nearby for almost twenty years and couldn’t disagree.
Litter is too genteel a word for the trash covering our sidewalks, spilling into gutters and rotting away next to tree trunks. “I’m horrified by how some storeowners fail to sweep,” said the second woman I met. We were looking at you, Duane Reade on 102nd Street, where it strikes me as only fair that an employee should get busy with a broom outside in exchange for customers waiting twenty minutes to buy an innocent bottle of ibuprofen imprisoned under lock and key.
There are other problems in our vicinity. Rats have multiplied in Biblical proportions since the pandemic, brazenly dashing in daylight to munch at vermin-level all-you-can-eat buffets near restaurant sheds. There’s crime, which thank God has yet to touch anyone I know personally, but scares the bejesus out of me—1970-style muggings, rapes, stabbings, gunshots, pickpocketing, and murders. But let’s stick with garbage, because it strikes me as the easiest problem to solve. Yet, it seems to increase by the day.
Since it was an unseasonably warm morning, I decided to stroll from 106th to 96th to photograph the rubbish and refuse situation (discounting what was overflowing actual trash bins.) I found empty beer bottles and pizza boxes, half-filled coffee cups, dozens of discarded cardboard boxes that no one had flattened and bundled in front of a butcher shop, a skinny dumpster-like space between Serafina and the bar next door chocablock with crap that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since the Giuliani administration, and more. Much more. McDonald’s is perhaps the worst offender. I wanted to photograph its outdoor junkyard, but some poor soul was lounging on a folding chair, smoking something, surrounded by what might be all her worldly possessions. I didn’t want to intrude.
People, we do not live in a slum. Apartments in this neck of the woods often sell for far above a million dollars, on par with the infinitely tidier Upper East Side. Is the issue that our ‘hood has more absentee landlords who have no idea–or interest in–what a pigsty our street has become? One of the women I met today told me she stopped to thank a man who was sweeping in front of his store. “Don’t thank me,” he insisted. “I’m just doing my job.” But do most store owners not give—pardon the expression—a rat’s ass about the mess beyond their front door? Should we blame the many scaffolds where the city’s growing homeless population sets up housekeeping?
In the late 1980’s, my husband, a commercial real estate executive, met Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and Presidential candidate. “If you were mayor of New York City, what would be the first thing you’d do to make it better?” he asked.
“I’d clean it up,” Gov. Dukakis said without skipping a beat. “A clean city gives people pride. Once you have pride, you can handle all the other problems.” Has our collective pride gone the way of landlines, subway tokens, and writing checks?
I want my lovely, clean neighborhood back. What is preventing our civic leaders from solving this problem?
Sally Koslow is a journalist and novelist. Set on the Upper West Side, her latest novel, The Real Mrs. Tobias, looks at the fraught mother/daughter-in-law relationship.