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Disposable Outcome : Has Los Angeles Become America's Trashiest City?

March 08, 1987|JACK SMITH

At a time when we live in fear of nuclear annihilation, it may seem trifling to complain about litter.

However, we might as well try to improve the quality of urban life as long as we have it.

Perhaps I am depressed by litter because I remember a time when Los Angeles was almost litter-free. The sidewalks were so clean that if you saw a scrap of paper on the sidewalk, you would pick it up and drop it in the next trash barrel.

It was as if everyone had a stake in the city's cleanliness and everyone did his or her part.

Today Los Angeles is no longer exemplary; in fact, it must be among the trashiest cities in the nation.

Not only does Broadway look like one long trash-barrel spill, but every neighborhood also has its blighted corner, supermarket or shopping center. Litter lies on sidewalks like fallen leaves, only not as pretty. It gluts the gutters.

Even the freeways, once so clean and well-kept, have succumbed to the sickness. The Pasadena Freeway is our oldest--and once was the prettiest. It threads through half a dozen pleasant little parks shaded by sycamore and eucalyptus trees.

Today it is hardly ever clean. It is befouled not only by the kind of litter that can be tossed out a car window, but also by the kind that can be disposed of only at the expenditure of will and effort. It is common to see mattresses flopped against the divider fences, sometimes barely outside the traffic lanes.

Not long ago the Pasadena Freeway was festooned for miles with toilet paper. It was probably fed out a car window at night by a load of drunks. Lots of juvenile fun; but, of course, a crew of street cleaners, working in great danger and at great cost to the taxpayers, had to clean it up.

Mattresses and refrigerators I can understand; they are dropped along the streets by people who don't know how else to get rid of them, don't know that the city would have picked them at their home. The candy and hamburger wrappers and plastic cups are the products of indifference and laziness. The rest is vandalism.

Remembering how we used to pick up isolated scraps of trash, I wonder if we aren't making the wrong appeal. By posting signs that say DO NOT LITTER and warning that violators may be fined $500, we may merely be challenging the scofflaws. Realistically, they know that no judge is going to sock them $500 for tossing aside a Milky Way wrapper. Maybe a $25 fine would be more effective, but who would arrest the miscreants? Do the cops really have time to put the cuffs on litterers? Or even to issue citations?

Pride can accomplish miracles.

Notice that in neighborhoods where graffiti are ubiquitous, the gangs have spared street murals from their desecrations.

For 60 miles between Tijuana and Ensenada, the Baja freeway runs beside a beautiful seascape. The road is lined with flowers and pink crushed rock. It is one of the world's most beautiful drives, and I have almost never seen a scrap of litter on it. This seems to be accomplished by signs that say simply NO TIRE BASURA , which means, literally, Don't Throw Trash.

I wonder, though, whether it's that sign or merely the exhilaration one feels in driving this freeway that moves motorists to keep it clean. Maybe we should try appealing to the sense of good citizenship that lies dormant in most of us. Perhaps a more gracious warning sign than DO NOT LITTER would do the trick.

Zelda Aronson of Hollywood recalls signs she saw on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1955. They said:

"The amenity of our streets is recommended to your care."

Lovely, isn't it? The Scots have always been a poetic race.

Evidently those signs work. I walked down Princes Street in Edinburgh a few years ago, and I remember being impressed by its cleanliness and beauty. Certainly, it is among the most pleasant streets in Christendom.

I was shocked by the filth of Broadway when I visited it a few years ago to shop at an electronics store. The sidewalks had been inundated with wrappers, cups, leaflets, newspapers and even a few articles of clothing. I noticed, though, that the occasional trash barrels were heaping full, and that the trash lay heavily about them, as if it had been tossed on and fallen off. Many people must be trying.

A few months ago I went back and saw a team of three men in red smocks cleaning up the sidewalk and gutters near 5th Street. The job looked hopeless, but at least the city was trying.

I just wonder what would happen if we were to post signs all over town that said:

"The amenity of our streets is recommended to your care."

It couldn't hurt.

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