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Santa Ana Janitor Is No Silent Sweeper

A building owner employs one man to tidy up and scold litterbugs. She says the city doesn't do enough.

June 27, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

When Ricci Zukerman hired a man to clean the sidewalk in front of the historic building she owns in the heart of Santa Ana's shopping district, she gave him unusual instructions.

"Your job is not just to clean. Educate," she told him.

"You have eight hours in a day. Use them to tell people not to litter."

Hiring a one-man task force to clean a downtown street was Zukerman's way of making a point with City Hall: that it is doing precious little, by her measure, to keep downtown tidy.

City officials say they are attacking the litter problem, but other businesspeople side with Zukerman, who has put her employee in uniform.

In a collared shirt that reads in Spanish, "I love Santa Ana, Keep it Clean," Zukerman's janitor, 64-year-old Esteban Mundo Alvavera, spends eight hours a day, five days a week, sweeping in front of the Otis Building at Fourth and Main streets and asking people to remove their feet from the walls of the building and to pick up their food containers, fliers and cigarette butts.

Zukerman hired Mundo Alvavera three months ago, after city officials refused to do additional sidewalk cleaning, she said.

"I resent the fact that I pay a high business tax. I pay property tax and now I have to pay someone to clean the sidewalk too," said Zukerman.

Mundo Alvavera uses hoses, soap and a broom to clean the cement each day. Throngs of people waiting at a bus stop near the building entrance leave debris behind, requiring a major cleanup every two hours, he said.

"The cleaning is easy," said Mundo Alvavera, who earns $6.75 an hour. "It's talking to people. Sometimes, if I tell them to pick up their trash, they get mad. Other times, they just ignore me."

A 22-year-old factory worker agreed to move when Mundo Alvavera chastised him for perching his foot against the wall while waiting for the bus. But moments later, the offender returned to his wall-scuffing post.

Others seemed embarrassed when caught littering.

"Who is he to tell us?" asked Marisol Murillo, a mother of two toddlers, one of whom threw a cup on the ground.

Zukerman's building served as a bank in the late 1800s; in later years, the bottom floor was occupied by retail stores.

She bought it in 1989 when it was occupied by the city's public works department. Three years ago, the city moved its employees to larger offices elsewhere.

Despite its prominent location and renovations that include brick-exposed interior walls, Zukerman was unable to attract tenants to the four-story building, other than a small clothing store on the first floor.

When a bank offered to buy the building in 1999, city officials quashed the deal, citing an ordinance passed 10 days earlier that prohibited two check-cashing operations within 1,000 feet of each other.

When no other offers developed, Zukerman attributed part of the problem to debris in the shopping district, which is popular for its bridal shops, check-cashing operations and jewelry and clothing stores. Outside the stores, vendors sell fruit, sodas and chips while women distribute fliers promoting local businesses and events.

To help fill her building, Zukerman moved in with her own 30-year-old business, Worldview Travel, which had been in a Costa Mesa high-rise.

Arriving at work each morning, Zukerman was dismayed that the vestibule smelled of urine and that debris piled up daily on the sidewalk.

Will Hayes, the city's maintenance services manager, said three city employees and one driving a street sweeper clean the downtown streets and sidewalk by 6 every morning. A city contractor collects trash on the sidewalks each day, he said.

Not long ago, the city moved the bus stop in front of Zukerman's building because Zukerman thought the debris came from waiting riders. But the new stop is so close to the old one, Zukerman has seen little improvement.

"We do know there are concerns, but we believe we are doing what we can," Hayes said. "I do think she is overestimating the problem."

Sam Romero, a downtown merchant who sells religious articles, disagrees.

"She is not exaggerating. You walk around the downtown and it's filthy most of the time. There is no way it's cleaned every day. That's a joke."

One of Hayes' employees met with Zukerman this week, but Zukerman said there was no resolution.

The problem has not been enough to turn Zukerman away from Santa Ana. Just recently, she moved from Newport Beach to Floral Park, a stately Santa Ana neighborhood. "I really like Santa Ana. I like the vibrant community," she said. "I just don't like the garbage."

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