This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cleaning Up Lawrence

LAWRENCE — Anthony Nuñez was tired of the words he kept seeing in headlines about his hometown: drugs, arson, insurance fraud; ailing, underfunded, understaffed, unemployed.

The 24-year-old mechanical engineer knew there was little he could do on his own to fix all that. But he figured he might be able to do something else to clean up the city’s image: Get its residents to clean up its streets.

On Saturday, Nuñez expects hundreds of volunteers to help him attack the layers of rubbish that line city parks; the empty bottles that clutter playgrounds; the rusted mufflers, leaking oil cans, and jagged scrap metal that clog empty lots. He is calling on residents to step outside and clean their sidewalks and blocks.

Spiffing up an entire city would be a challenging enough task, but this Don Quixote of detritus has set an even more daunting agenda. He hopes that the sight of people tidying up their neighborhoods will inspire others to join in. He wants the idea to go viral, interrupt the drumbeat of bad news, and improve the mood of a city.

“Maybe we can change Lawrence’s negative image,’’ Nuñez said. “Maybe we can change the mind-set of the people. I hope we can boost morale, maybe change the outlook people have.’’

Nuñez is the first to acknowledge that he may be jousting at wastebins, that his idea could fail to catch on. He has no experience organizing mass cleanups — he is just a citizen who was angry when he saw a reader’s comment on a local paper’s website that suggested “they should build a wall around Lawrence and let them all kill each other off.’’

Rather than respond to the post, he said, “I figured actions speak louder than words,’’ and Clean the Trash Out of Lawrence Day was born. A Facebook site Nuñez has dedicated to the event has attracted more than 400 people, many of whom have said they will heed his call to grab some work gloves and pitch in. Nuñez said public-works officials have promised to help by providing a garbage bin in a central park for the bags of trash collected by the volunteers.

Gilda Duran, the city’s neighborhood planner, said she welcomed Nuñez’s initiative.

“Though it is a small city, there’s a lot of ground to cover,’’ she said. “Sometimes it takes someone to take the lead.’’

The city does try to maintain its streets, but its workers do not get to all of the trash. On a recent Thursday, Nuñez pointed out garbage trucks rumbling through Lawrence neighborhoods. Workers tossed bags from barrels lining residential streets, but they did not pick up litter. “Not our job,’’ said a man in a neon-yellow vest as he worked on Poplar Street. A few other workers, who said they had been hired by the city, were plucking pieces of litter from a small city park. Sweeper trucks worked the larger roads, but missed objects like crushed bottles wedged against curbs.

Lawrence is not the only dirty city, but the pervasiveness of waste is striking. Nuñez stood on a particularly blighted section of Erving Avenue along the Spicket River, amid discarded rags, vodka nips, hand purifier bottles, Planters Peanuts wrappers, Tropicana orange juice jugs, and a plastic container oozing a mysterious, milky liquid. More distressing than this riot of flotsam and jetsam was the empty trash container in the middle of the block: In tossing their refuse, no one bothered to walk the few feet to the receptacle.

“It doesn’t mean there is no point in trying,’’ Nuñez said. “But it is definitely possible that this might not work and people are going to stay the same.’’

Some posters on the Facebook site expressed their doubts more colorfully.

“HAHAHA GOOD LUCK!!! YOUR BETTER OFF PACKING UP AND MOVING LOL.’’

“You pick it up, it’s clean for five minutes, and then they trash it so why bother??????’’

The last poster has a point. City cleanups tend to be negated pretty quickly by litterbugs. And Lawrence is dirty despite the efforts of other volunteer groups. One of them, Groundwork Lawrence, is holding a spring cleaning in collaboration with Comcast on April 30.

“The more the merrier,’’ Nuñez said when he was informed of this event. “Usually when these things happen it’s like 50 or 60 people in one place. What I hope is that if people go out in their neighborhoods, other people will say ‘Oh, my neighbor is cleaning, I will, too.’ ’’

Other Lawrence residents think the idea might catch on. Ana Avellan, 36, an administrative assistant who has lived in Lawrence since 1989, said she has taught her teenage sons and baseball teams she coaches to clean up after themselves. But she has watched with dismay the accumulation of “all the trash that’s in each crevice and corner.’’

When she received an invitation on Facebook to the cleanup, she said, “I thought, ‘this is a really good idea.’ ’’

“It’s been like that so long you feel that nothing is going to change,’’ she said. “But if we all pitch in, little by little it is going to change.’’

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