Dumping on Detroit

Dec 15, 2004 at 12:00 am

It can be said without any fear of contradiction that metro Detroit, and especially the city itself, is a comfort zone for pigs.

A few days ago, during one of the snow dustings we’ve had so far, I overheard someone say they loved a good snowfall, not because it’s time to break out the skis, snowboards, sleds and toboggans; not because of the special beauty of a fresh snowfall or the clean way it makes the air smell; not because of snow days, its muting effect on harsh sounds, the fact that it calls for cocoa, or anything of the sort. It’s because a good snow, at least for a time, covers up all the garbage.

Put up all the new facades you want. List all the new restaurants and housing, plant posies and cut grass. Coin upbeat slogans, expand museums. Build riverwalks and ice rinks and urban parks. Encourage and install new public art. But until metro area streets and freeways are routinely kept reasonably clean, all those positive efforts are going to be like tatting a doily for a public toilet seat.

It’s become a given, a sorrowful one, that basic city services are hard to come by in Detroit. The saving grace of poor public lighting is that uncollected trash is harder to see. While nearly all of the city’s neighbors do a much better job for taxpayers in that respect, they, too, are awash in crud. Those public trash cans that do exist are too often left untended and overflowing, themselves a source of windborne crap.

But whatever failures may exist in public services, most of this stuff wouldn’t need to be picked up if it wasn’t tossed or dropped there in the first place. And that’s our fault. Us. We. Me. Not “them,” whoever that is in your personal worldview.

We’ve all driven on streets and freeways behind someone who rolls down a window and tosses fast-food trash by the bagful out into our world. I once saw a young woman who must’ve cleaned out the entire passenger compartment — one bag, can, cup or wrapper at a time — before finishing off by emptying her ashtray, like Aunt Millie’s mortal remains cast to a seaside zephyr.

Crain’s Detroit Business reported this week that Detroit is launching yet another tough new enforcement program to combat the blight that’s everywhere — even within easy eyeshot of the pretty new Campus Martius public space downtown. Great. No, really. This time, it may actually work, and not degenerate into a bureaucratic encumbrance blockading the road to new development.

But the bigger problem is not crumbling brick and mortar. It’s garbage, whether as small as a cheeseburger wrapper or used condom, or as large as a truck axle or sprung mattress.

We all have to take ownership of that, both by not contributing to it anymore, or by bending over and picking up a castoff newspaper page, AOL freebie CD or plastic bag. And while we’re yapping away on our cells while weaving through traffic, we should get in the habit of noting license numbers and ratting out mobile dumpers. Won’t do much good without filing a formal complaint, but it may result in a few cops hassling a few pigs (writing that really felt ironic for a child of the ’60s) and seeding second thoughts in those porcine brains.

Do you find our mutual hog wallow acceptable? Then carry on, either by continuing your own filthy habits or ignoring those of others. If not, do something. I’m not exhorting you to wipe with a belt sander, simply to neaten things up a little.

While Brillat-Savarin’s dictum that “we are what we eat” is true, it doesn’t go far enough. We’re also what we throw away, and where we throw it.

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