A war on trash

Stevens Square couple leading neighborhood antilitter campaign

Sue and David Crockett moved from the suburbs into the Stevens Square neighborhood last year because they saw beauty in the diverse and rapidly changing area just south of the city’s core.

Weeks later, they saw trash.

Just a wrapper at first, something they’d pick up on a walk to Loring Park and move on. But that pushed them to collect more and more, and a wrapper a day became hours spent filling a bag or two a week. The Crocketts felt they were fighting a losing battle, and soon realized they had a choice: Change their location or help change the neighborhood.

They chose the latter with hope that their efforts to combat litter will help, if even in some small way, continue the once-troubled neighborhood’s transition to a safe, welcoming place.

"It’s a progression," said David Crockett, who works as a developer in both Stevens Square and other Minneapolis neighborhoods. "Litter, graffiti, crime. It’s a progression. And starting at the low end [to halt the progression] is meaningful."

At first, the Crocketts weren’t sure anyone was paying attention, particularly after they approached some skeptical property owners who told the Crocketts not to bother, that litter was a necessary evil of city life.

"I thought, ‘Is there that much apathy? People just don’t see it, they don’t care, they’re not engaged?’" said Sue Crockett.

Soon they realized, though, that there were plenty of neighbors tuned in to the trouble. It helped when they joined the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), where they were presented with the results of the 2004 survey the organization had conducted.

Turned out that littering was a close third on residents’ list of neighborhood troubles, with 38 percent concerned about it. First was excessive noise (45 percent), which beat out drug dealing (40 percent).

"There has been concern about the amount of trash and litter in the neighborhood for a long, long time," said Dave Delvoye, SSCO’s safety coordinator.

Even to the point wherein Stevens Square residents had begun tracking a trend that could only be catalogued by an active, watchful neighborhood: the path of litter. The Crocketts asked around, and discovered that the worst by far is 19th Street, followed by Clinton Avenue, and then the walking path that runs along I-94.

So the Crocketts, with the help of neighbors and new friends like Delvoye, went to work this summer on an idea that goes something like this: When litter, like crime or graffiti, is present but invisible, it means there’s too much. But when there’s, say, one abandoned soda can in the whole neighborhood, it’s going to stand out. Someone’s bound to notice.

They drafted pledges, which some property owners have already signed. The pledges call for simple changes, like curbing overflowing dumpsters, placing extra trashcans and ashtrays outside buildings, and asking owners to hold tenants responsible for litter.

They knocked on doors and made phone calls and antilitter T-shirts and along the way, they gathered new converts.

Take Katie Dailey, who moved into a Stevens Square apartment two years ago and liked it so much — and only party because of her short commute Downtown to Target, where she works as a girls’ clothing designer — that she bought a condo in the neighborhood a year later.

"We are trying to have fun and engage other people to help us," Dailey said. "We can’t keep all of the litter cleaned up ourselves, but partnering with building owners, associations and residents will help to build momentum, and every little bit will help."

The nascent campaign, which the Crocketts hope to fully launch next spring, hit its first prewinter (snow, of course, will hamper the best antilitter campaign) roadblock on Saturday, Oct. 6, when a neighborhoodwide cleanup event was halted by fall thunderstorms. Organizers stayed inside — no one even got as far as reaching for the stray fast-food and candy-bar wrappers on 19th Street that the rain carried toward sewer grates.

But there was at least one sign that morning that the Crocketts’ message has reached beyond its core support group.

Two men crossed a street into Stevens Square Park a few minutes before 10 a.m., walking single-file and chewing on convenience store hot dogs.

The first finished his and let the plastic wrapper fall to the ground.

The second man, without breaking stride, reached down, plucked the wrapper from the ground, and dropped it into a nearby trashcan.