City Howl Help Desk: Who takes care of shared alleys?

Blackwood in the trashy alley behind her home.
Blackwood in the trashy alley behind her home.
Posted: January 05, 2011

THE PROBLEM: The alley behind Leslie Blackwood's house in Grays Ferry is a mess.

Construction debris, paint cans, bricks and at least one old stove are piled behind her rowhouse, blocking the back gate. The pile appears to be on several properties.

Blackwood fears that the mess, besides being "really ugly," is a fire hazard. She says the alley's been the site of illegal dumping for years. She and her neighbors used to have cleanups, but that's stopped. "Nobody wants to pick the heavy stuff up," she says.

She said that she called the city in 2009 about the problem but that nothing's been done.

WHAT THE CITY WILL AND WON'T DO: The shared alleys behind rowhouses can present particular problems for neighbors because they aren't the city's responsibility to clean. They're private property.

The city used to have a cleaning program for alleys, but ended it more than a decade ago, says mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald.

Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams says that an annual alley-cleaning operation would cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, which the city can't afford.

He says illegal dumping in alleys is concentrated in neighborhoods in South, Southwest and North Philly, where most alleys are situated.

If dumping in an alley gets bad enough, it may violate the city code, and then the Department of Licenses and Inspections can write violation notices to get the owners to clean up.

L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy says the department doesn't have any record of Blackwood's complaints. She says Blackwood should call 3-1-1 and save the complaint number she's given.

But even if L&I issues violations for the mess, it could take months to get them resolved, and L&I workers won't truck away the garbage.

There is one other way Blackwood could get the city to help: She could request a cleanup from the Community Partnership Program of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services.

Deputy Managing Director Thomas Conway says the office will bring supplies and a crew of people sentenced to court-

ordered community service to take the trash out of the alley. Blackwood would have to get a few neighbors to help.

Since July, the program has cleaned 22 alleys, along with hundreds of vacant lots and other eyesores.

Blackwood says that she led such a cleanup last spring but that the city was disorganized - "I got the brooms after the cleanup day." That cleanup was a one-time service. Conway's office doesn't dispatch crews routinely to maintain alleys.

KEEPIN' IT CLEAN. If Blackwood wants a more permanent solution to the dumping, where can she turn?

Other areas in the city have nonprofits to do this type of cleaning. Right across Broad Street from Blackwood's house, Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods used to provide free alley cleaning to certain South Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Citizens' Alliance got caught up in the corruption investigation of former state Sen. Vince Fumo. But "if you needed an alley cleaned, Citizens' Alliance was Johnny on the spot" says Joseph Marino, co-chairman of the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association.

The University City District, which serves the neighborhoods west of Penn, has a 26-person cleaning staff out seven days a week to maintain 150 residential blocks.

But Blackwood's block isn't served by a similar group, says Andrew Dalzell, coordinator for the South of South Neighborhood Association, north of Grays Ferry.

He adds that neighbors might have to band together and shell out their own money to pay for someone to clean things up.

"You have to decide for yourself I think how much this problem is affecting you," he says.

Dalzell says there's a "diffusion of responsibility" around alleys, noting that the city does maintain alley lights even though it leaves cleaning to residents.

His group has signed up to be a neighborhood liaison office with 3-1-1, meaning it can access the city computer system and do things like upload pictures of illegal dumping to provide inspectors with evidence for violations.

In the short term, Blackwood could call 3-1-1 to get L&I on the case, and contact Conway's office to set up another one-time cleanup, though she says she's not sure it's worth the time.

Williams, of the Streets Department, says a permanent solution probably involves a block captain. Block captains are responsible for organizing neighborhood cleanups, and get access to city cleaning supplies.

Since Blackwood's block captain moved away, she could get a petition together to nominate a neighbor or herself.

Anthony Campisi reports for It's Our Money, a partnership of the Daily News and WHYY. Dealt with city services lately? How did it go? Let us know at thecityhowl.com, e-mail howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855. And check out this story on the Fox29 News at 10 tonight.

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