Here's what was found dumped in a two-block stretch of alley between K and L streets in Barrio Logan: A stained faux-leather couch, a stack of broken particle board, a pile of wall-to-wall carpeting, a green chair stuffed clumsily into a plastic storage container, the torn black roof of a compact convertible, a traffic cone, the disassembled elements of a what might've been the backseat of a car, a box spring, a paint bucket, another box spring (this time with a tire next to it like a little buddy), shelves from a cabinet, the corner piece to an L-shaped living-room sofa set, an overturned fabric couch and, lastly, a blue mattress bent in half and tied with a yellow string and an empty box for a Panasonic flat-screen TV, which were leaning against the corner of a chainlink fence like bored hoodlums.
And that's just on a Friday.
“You'll come into your backyard through your driveway, and when you come back out, you can't leave because someone left a sofa there,” says Vivian Toscano, office manager at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and a local resident.
The church has volunteers clear the alley every weekend.
“It's fast, it really is. It's amazing,” Toscano says.Everyone who comes into contact with illegal dumping in Barrio Logan—residents, landlords, church leaders, city workers—believes that big items have a gravitational pull. Left alone, a mattress and a broken TV (“They seem to come in pairs,” says Laura Schreiner, a community organizer with the San Diego Organizing Project) will attract more and more urban flotsam until residents can't back out or pass through the alley.
“When you see one item get left, that's just a magnet for more stuff,” says Marcus Romero, who owns rental properties in Barrio Logan. “If that couch stays there for four or five days, I guarantee you another one's going to appear; a mattress is going to appear on top of that in another couple of days, and then it just snowballs and you've got a huge mess. That's just typical of how it works.”
Illegal dumping is a problem citywide, but it's an epidemic in Barrio Logan and City Heights. More than 63 percent of the 16,883 illegal-dumping calls to the city's Environmental Services Department during the first half of this fiscal year were placed in these two areas, says the department's public-information officer, Jose Ysea. The cleanup, handled by city code-enforcement crews, costs more than $2.6 million per year, but the city is only able to collect a few thousand dollars—around a 10th of a percent—in illegal-dumping fines.
“I've lived here forever, and always I'm seeing trash,” says resident Josefina Villa through a translator. “It's carts, it's tires, it's paint, and there's not any light at all in the alleys, so people can leave whatever they want.”
The causes are elusive. Some in the community believe that a major factor is general ignorance to the rules governing disposal of large items. There may be economic reasons, as well: San Diego's Miramar Landfill charges a fee for dumping and is halfway across the city. The large transient population in the area also contributes to the prevalence of discarded furniture.
Villa says the first thing that needs to happen is increasing consciousness of the problems and solutions—until recently, she says, she didn't know she could call the city to remove illegally dumped materials and instead attempted to clear it herself. She says lighting would help, as well as signage warning that dumping is against the law.
Lately, the community has been taking action. SDOP has actively lobbied the City
Council, and through Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, the
community has begun organizing cleanup events. On May 1, the community
held a town-hall meeting with City Councilmember David Alvarez, who
lives in and represents Barrio Logan. He says he experiences illegal dumping as frequently as anyone.
couches, mattresses, toilets—just everything,” Alvarez says, describing
his back alley. “As soon as it gets cleared out, something else gets
dropped. It's just a cycle. It just continues, and it never stops.”
attempted to include some measures in proposals he put together for the
city budget, but they didn't make it into the final spending plan, and,
so, it falls upon the community to “take ownership of their streets and
neighborhoods,” the council member says. He's looking for residents
who'll volunteer to hang automatic lights on their back fences. His
office also has compiled a database of residents who own trucks and can
help haul away materials. If the community can organize regular
cleanups, Alvarez says he can arrange for dumpsters to be there ready to
accept the large items.
the couches and mattresses are a nuisance, hazardous materials may be
the more pressing matter. It's not the materials themselves—usually
household chemicals, such as used motor oil or excess paint—but, rather,
the drain on resources. The responsibility currently lies with the San
Diego Fire Department.
estimates that it costs the city roughly $25,000 for the Fire
Department to dispose of oil and paint each year and between $75,000 and
$100,000 to dispose of more dangerous chemicals and unidentifiable
materials. SDFD Deputy Chief of Special Operations Doug Nakana says the
cost is closer to $250,000 per year.
the cost, the system also diverts resources away from public safety.
The Fire Department's only Hazmat unit is based in Mira Mesa; during
last year's brownouts, a full engine company had to respond to
hazardous-material calls. The well-publicized choking death of a
2-year-old boy in Mira Mesa last summer highlighted the problem: Fire
Chief Javier Mainar told the press that the brownouts slowed the
response time. The engine in the nearest station was unable to respond
because it was in South County responding to waste oil that had been
left outside— a “nuisance call,” Nakana says.
is proposing that low-level hazardous-materials response be moved from
the fire department to the city's Environmental Services Department, and
he says that'll be a subject of discussion at a committee hearing in
September. Nakana says they are also discussing options with the Mayor's
office; one alternative may involve outsourcing oil and paint nuisance
calls. The Mayor's office declined to respond to CityBeat's request for comment on the proposal.
“This is something that's going to continue to happen until they figure out a better way,” Romero says.
“It's kind of been a shell game…. We're playing with fire here and next time it could be a couple people that die.”
With a little work and organization, the community hopes its efforts will snowball faster than a couch and a television.