Friday, October 2, 2009

Clear Alleys? Define "Clear"

Maybe you noticed that at some point this spring, almost all of Belltown's beloved dumpsters disappeared from sight. Maybe you didn't; there wasn't a whole lot of hoopla over the event. There was no change for me, since my building's dumpster is located off the alley. But for many people, the new way of doing things was both a major pain and an unneeded new expense.

Over the last 8 or so years, the American public's sense of irony and cynicism has been elevated by the Orwellian doublespeak of our nation's former leaders. For example, the PATRIOT Act was one of the most unpatriotic pieces of legislation of the last 100 years. The Terrorist Surveillance Act should have been named the Everybody Surveillance Act, and the Clear Skies Initiative gave free rein to polluters of all stripes. So naturally, when I heard about "Clear Alleys," I expected the worst. Let's take a look at how things are going.

First of all, the area most impacted by this measure is the south end of Belltown, from Battery to Stewart. This is the older section of the neighborhood whose buildings were built during a different era of waste collection. Whatever that was in the past, the result for most was dumpsters in the alleys. Here is before-and-after composite of the initiative:

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This is what my home alley (Blanchard, between 1st & 2nd) looked like circa June 2008 when Google Maps first swept into town.

This is the alley at present. OK, it's less cluttered.

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Here's the alley looking the opposite direction towards Bell.

This is it today. Definitely less cluttered.

And finally, for the sake of consistency, let's go up a block to the alley behind the Crocodile and the Castle:

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Behind the Castle then...

...And now.

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Behind the Crocodile then...

...And now.

So based on that, this new initiative is an unmitigated success, right? It successfully uncluttered the alleyways and brought freedom and brotherhood to Belltown, yes? Not so fast. Since the demise of dumpsters, everything is done with cans and bags. The cans aren't the problem, the bags are. They get stacked at their collection points and there they stay for days, making them easy pickings for neighborhood critters and those who used to rifle through dumpsters. The result is that there are short patches of intense urban squalor at certain points. Here is a random sampling from this week:

Is this an improvement? I say no. What we've done is traded clutter for squalor. You know, I was no huge fan of the squadrons of dumpsters, but at least they kept the trash contained. These days, I walk out of my building's back door and I'm ankle-deep in garbage. What the heck do they mean by "clear" anyway? That's not a clear alley in my book.

One point that I will concede is that with fewer dumpsters, the noise from trash collection is way down. Gone is the once-familiar WHIRRRRRR-BOOOOM! of the dumpster being tipped into a garbage truck. So yes, that much has improved, but overall I'd say that we've just swapped one bad thing for another.

Read more of Hideous Belltown!


ruffhauser said...

This whole dumpster thing is Seattle thinking at its worst.

We remove the dumpsters, the most recyclable thing going, as they are used over and over for 30-40 years, and trade these in for plastic bags, which may or may not be biodegradable.

The bags are then ripped open by bums looking for food/cans/bottles, so trash is strewn all over the alleys.

The city then compounds this by having "green" garbage trucks circle up to 3 times a day picking up trash. But don't woory about their fuel comsumption, becuase the trucks run on biodiesel.

The thinking on this is so muddled. It's classic ivory-tower thinking by do-gooder politicians that have never spent a day on the streets they are charged with serving.

Igor Keller said...

That's exactly how I see it, too. When I first wrote about this back in April or May, I was convinced that this idea came from a city that was much smaller than Seattle - someplace less urban. I can see this working there, but here it's simply trading something bad for something else bad.

Dave Nak said...

I agree with you that having garbage bags sitting out in the open for birds and others to rip open is a real problem.

On the other hand, dumpsters bring their own sets of problems: places for drug dealers and crack addicts to hide behind. I have definitely noticed a dramatic reduction in drug dealers hiding in the alley behind 1st, between bell & battery. I'll take the trade off.

Lydia said...

I have to agree with Dave on this one. I've seen the problems, but it's still an improvement and a good trade-off.

Anonymous said...

This whole dumpsters-assists-drug use argument is such total bullshit, I can't even begin to talk about it without wanting to punch someone in the face.

And what really upsets me is now I have to pay $10/month on top of my rent for 4 of the "magic" garbage bags (which, by the way, are much less sturdy than garbage bags of the same size one can buy for much less at any store) _and_ unless I want to pay $3/per for extra bags, I can only take my trash out once every week, because I have to wait until I've accumulated 15 gallons worth of it. Which, in my tiny kitchen in my tiny apartment, is completely ridiculous. And, since my building doesn't have yard/food waste collection, I have food waste sitting in my kitchen for a week at a time. Fucking bullshit.

Yet another reason why I hate Seattle.

dpk said...

"This whole dumpsters-assists-drug use argument is such total bullshit, I can't even begin to talk about it without wanting to punch someone in the face."

I'm not sure what to say to that. Can you explain, or are you seriously contemplating physical violence? I wouldn't want to trigger some sort of attack on a family member.

I agree that it is pretty ridiculous to have garbage bags sitting in the alley waiting to be picked up. Bums and animal turn it in to a total mess. How could it be made better without bringing the dumpsters back (dumpsters that only addressed the animal side of it)? More pickups? Centralized drop-off points for the bags?

Kyle said...

i've seen some drugs and sex going on in between dumpsters but never IN one :)

Chris Martin said...

A well written blog - and some good comments - that highlight some of the challenges of both our urban environment and the implementation of a major new garbage system.

Our evaluation of the current situation is:

60% of the alleys downtown meet our expectations and have experienced a marked improvement in both cleanliness and public safety.

20% of the alleys are failing to meet our expectations but do not fall to the level of unacceptable. These alleys have collection schedule/frequency issues we will fix.

20% of the alleys are in unacceptable condition. These alleys have large amounts of illegal dumping and at least one and often more “resistant” business that, despite being made aware of the rules, refuse to adhere to set-out policies. It is telling that all the pictures in the Belltown Blog contain illegal dumping.

CleanScapes is engaged in quarterly reviews of the Clear Alleys Program and each review has led to service changes and enhancements. The program started April 1st and our first quarter review led to changes implemented in July and we have just completed our July – September review and the following changes are in process:

1. CleanScapes is assigning an “alley czar” who will check each alley daily – 7 days per week starting with a “hot list” of problem alleys.

2. We will continue to work to eliminate the illegal dumping that is at the root of most problems. We have found that approximately 20% of businesses did not pay for dumpster service – they simply dumped in the alley or someone else’s dumpster.

3. We will implement an “alley report card” that will be updated and posted on-line daily. The alley report cards will be reviewed at our weekly CleanStats meetings and managers will be held accountable for ensuring that our expectations are met.

CleanScapes is committed to a clean and safe downtown and we believe this program helps create a more sustainable urban environment. As we engage in a process of continuous improvement we welcome input and comments from the public. If you have thoughts or suggestions please feel free to contact me at or 206-859-6705.

Chris Martin

Jim said...

Mr. Martin,

Thank you for filling us in on your efforts to improve CleanScapes garbage handling policies in the Belltown neighborhood. Perhaps you could also explain to us the reasons for changing over from dumpsters to bags in the first place. Several explanations have been proffered here - elimination of drug dealing and homeless encampments, the general safety of residents, the absence of noisy, fuel-consuming trucks, etc. Are these the objectives? Have your measures been successful in fulfilling these goals? If so, have they - as Igor demonstrates in his photos - resulted in the accumulation of more trash along the streets?

ruffhauser said...

To prove my "egg-heads as politicians" opinion. The powers-that-be are removing dumpsters to fight drug abuse/dealing?

Why cloak it in some "green" initiative? This kind of idiocy only encourages those who would be cynical about the "green" movement, and this cynicism would be justified.

mstewart said...

Thanks for this blog.

Chris Martin states above: " October 3 : 3. We will implement an “alley report card” that will be updated and posted on-line daily."

I have emailed him to ask where these alley report cards can be seen. The alley outside my building is a disaster 75% of the time.

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