For decades, Charles Burch was alone in picking up litter outside his business on Albany Street.
His plumbing business’ fence collects litter, blown there by the wind, and sometimes it seemed there was no end in sight.
“I clean up every day, sometimes three times a day,” he said.
He would watch pedestrians toss bags and bottles on the ground as they walked by. Occasionally he would confront them. They would curse him and walk on. Very rarely did he ever see someone use the nearby trash can.
Then a few dedicated residents began walking up and down Albany Street with trash bags. Neighbors took notice and started to help. Dean Plakas of Newest Lunch put out his own trash can outside his restaurant, emptying it every day.
A movement was born.
This summer, the group went door to door to convince all business owners along the commercial corridor to join in the cleanup effort. Their goal: to get every business owner to sweep up trash along their property every day.
About half the property owners have now agreed, and the group proudly showed off a significantly cleaner Albany Street on Thursday.
Their results persuaded Mohawk Honda to join Thursday afternoon, and workers there spent the last hours of daylight mowing 4-foot-tall weeds along Albany Street and picking up bags of trash the wind had blown into the fence at the company’s Mohawk Auto Center.
Even the city has taken notice. Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen plans to put more public trash cans along the street, and he has already told waste collectors to empty the existing cans twice a week because they were overflowing after a few days.
“I really give this group a lot of credit,” Olsen said. “They’ve been working on this a long time. They’re not going away.”
Plakas is hoping the trash cans will help. The one he put outside Newest Lunch reduced his litter significantly.
“I’m my own worst enemy,” he said. “I give them something in a bag, and as they’re walking out the door they’re taking the item out of the bag and throwing it on the ground.”
Burch knows those bags all too well.
“I’ve gotten to the point whenever I go clean up, I don’t bring a bag,” he said. “They’re already provided.”
Along the back fence of Mohawk Auto Center, he picked up five generic black bags, used by many of the small corner stores in the area.
“I probably pick up 5,000 of these a year,” he said.
But providing trash cans isn’t the only answer. Olsen said some business owners and residents use the trash can for their own trash, pouring in a day’s worth of chicken bones or squeezing in an entire bag of garbage. When businesses take over a can for food waste, maggots and flies quickly follow, Burch said.
Plakas put a lid on his can to discourage that sort of use, but a resident recently left a full-size garbage bag leaning next to his can.
“Now it’s my problem. I have to deal with it,” he said.
Still, he’s not complaining. His can is three-quarters full every day with the normal detritus of urban life: candy bar wrappers, soda bottles, fast food containers. And there’s that much less to sweep up.
The group is now focusing on a few business owners who have thus far refused to join the cleanup. At a press conference Thursday, organizer Marva Isaacs read a list of business owners that she said are uncooperative.
Among them was Mohawk Honda, much to that company’s surprise.
Owner Steve Haraden volunteered to help as soon as he heard about it, saying he hadn’t gotten word of the effort before.
“I think it’s fabulous,” he said. “I will certainly instruct my staff. I have two lot monitors. We will cut down all that brush and get rid of all that trash today. I don’t know about every day, but certainly a couple times a week. We’ll do our part.”
Others weren’t as enthusiastic. At Zaid, a corner store, the clerk simply shrugged and said that he wasn’t the owner. The owner’s cellphone memory was full and could not accept voice messages.
Olsen can ticket business owners for not sweeping outside their storefronts. He has hesitated to do so, hoping residents could persuade them instead.
“It is difficult enough to run a business without getting cited by your city,” he said.
But if some business owners persist in ignoring the litter, he said he’ll consider tickets.
“If they’re not going to cooperate with this group, that would be my next recommendation,” he said. “I want to reinforce their efforts.”
He might not be the only one.
Residents outside Zaid were noticing that every other business on the street had a clean-swept sidewalk. One man, who was eating his lunch on a stoop, promised to pick up after himself.
Others said they would pay closer attention now that it’s clear people want to keep the street clean.
A customer at Newest Lunch confessed she has occasionally littered.
“But when I see a trash can, I do use a trash can,” Yolanda Austin said.
Getting business owners and passersby to keep the street clean is just the first step. The cleanup group wants to attract new businesses to Albany Street.
“We’d like to see it thrive again,” said Councilwoman Marion Porterfield. “Part of that is making it look attractive.”
She wants the city to demolish the derelict and long-vacant buildings on the street, as well, “to make it appealing to businesses.” Some of the buildings are on the city’s demolition list.